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Can my business be sued if I meet federal safety rules?

Imagine that you launch a business in Texas and as part of your undertaking you do all you can to be sure you fulfill your obligations where safety is concerned. You work with experienced legal counsel to understand what government standards may be in place and you set your policies to make sure that your products meet those standards.

Such care and diligence may not defend you from liability claims being filed in the regrettable event that one of your products happens to fail and cause harm. But it would seem realistic to think that there should be no threat of possible punitive damages. After all, you had government regulators' seal of approval. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.

While it considered a generally accepted rule that companies that adhere to federal safety rules should be protected from punitive liability, some courts have allowed such awards. And that is why a case out of Kentucky is noteworthy, in the view of some legal observers.

The case involves a 240-pound woman's claim against carmaker Nissan. She alleged that she suffered severe injuries in a car crash because Nissan failed to issue a warning that its seat belts might not work as expected if a person is heavier than 171 pounds -- the maximum weight of crash dummies used in federal tests. A jury ordered Nissan to pay her $2.6 million in compensatory damages and an amount nearly equal that in punitive damages.

On appeal, the Kentucky Supreme Court let the compensation amount stand but said the punitive damages weren't called for. It said they might have been if evidence showed Nissan had somehow acted with malice, but there was none. The plaintiff is now seeking a rehearing.

Every case is different and no one can predict its outcome, but with solid legal preparation it may be possible to exercise a positive influence on the results.

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