WASHINGTON -- Frustrating motorists who claim that a car without an air bag is unsafe, a divided Supreme Court barred lawsuits yesterday against automakers for failing to install that kind of restraint in older cars.
The 5-4 decision applies only to owners or passengers in cars that were built before Sept. 1, 1997. Front-seat air bags are required on cars built since then, but millions of older cars are on the road without them.
In a separate 5-4 ruling as the justices began the final weeks of decision-making before their summer recess, the court struck down a 1996 federal law that forced most sexually explicit cable-TV programs into late night hours, to protect children from seeing them.
In the dispute over air bags, lower courts had divided over whether lawsuits based on state law could go forward on the theory that a car without an air bag has a defective design. Such a claim could make the manufacturer liable for an accident in which injury or death could be traced to the absence of an air bag.
The justices cleared up that dispute in a case involving a 1987 Honda Accord that had no airbag. The court majority said that any such lawsuit would intrude upon a federal government policy -- in force before the 1998 model year -- that let manufacturers decide whether or not to install air bags.
Under that policy, automakers could install automatically closing seatbelts or padded interiors, instead of air bags, to protect drivers and riders.
That policy would be frustrated, the court ruled, if lawsuits in state courts had the practical effect of forcing manufacturers to install "one particular system in every car." The Constitution, the court said in an opinon written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, does not permit claims, based on state law, that would directly conflict with a federal policy.
Beginning with 1998 models, every car has been required to have an an air bag for driver and front passenger positions. But that change in policy did not wipe out any legal claims that predated the change, and a rash of lawsuits involving accidents of older cars had targeted the auto industry.
The manufacturers had expected to continue to face such lawsuits for at least the next decade, until autos without air bags had gone out of use.
The court scuttled those lawsuits, and barred any new ones like them, in a case involving a Washington woman, Alexis Geier, who was seriously injured in a one-car accident on a city street in 1992. She was wearing a manual lap-and-shoulder seat belt, but the car had no air bag.
Rounding a curve, the 1987 Honda Accord that Geier was driving spun out of control and crashed into a tree. She suffered serious head injuries.
Breyer's majority opinion rejecting her lawsuit was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. Dissenting was Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas.
A different 5-4 majority joined in finding unconstitutional the 4-year-old law passed by Congress to insulate children from being exposed briefly to scenes or sounds on sexually explicit channels - such as the Playboy Channel and the Spice channel, also operated by Playboy.
Occasionally, transmissions called "signal bleed" occur, resulting in fleeting glimpses or sounds of erotic material to be sent to the TV viewers who are non-subscribers or pay-per-view customers.
To try to protect children from signal bleed, Congress ordered cable-TV stations to either block sexually explicit programs to subscribers who did not want them, or show them only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when children presumably would not be watching.
Most cable stations chose to use the night scheduling option. This prevented adults who wanted the programs from seeing them during the day and early evening.
The court, upholding a challenge by Playboy Entertainment Group, ruled that this was a direct restriction on indecent expression -- the kind of sexually explicit programming that is not obscene and thus is protected by the First Amendment free speech clause.
The restriction, the court ruled, could not be justified because there was no proof that many children actually were exposed to signal bleed glimpses or sounds.
In any event, the court said, the 1996 law went too far, because if signal bleed exposes children to indecent programming, each household could ask a cable station to block any such program.
Kennedy wrote that opinion, joined by Ginsburg, Souter, Stevens and Thomas. Breyer dissented, joined by the chief justice and O'Connor and Scalia.
In other cases:
The court, continuing a series of rulings that have provided new protection for states' rights, ruled unanimously that a federal law against the intentional burning of a building does not apply to arson against a private house that is not used for any business activity.
The court ruled, 7-2, that an 1863 "whistle-blower" law cannot be used by private citizens to sue a state government that has allegedly obtained money from the federal government by fraud. The old law permits private citizens to stand in for the government and awards them a share of the proceeds if they show that a false claim for federal funds has been made.
The court refused to hear a case on judiciary power to bar supervisors from using language on the job that ridicules or harasses workers based on their gender or ethnic background. The case involved the Avis Rent a Car unit at San Francisco's airport.