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City of Chicago v. General Motors Corp.

decided: September 19, 1972.


Before Kiley and Sprecher, Circuit Judges, and Durfee, Senior Judge.*fn*

Author: Sprecher

The city of Chicago brought this diversity class action, based upon the Illinois common law of strict product liability, which seeks to have the federal court create standards requiring automobile manufacturers to equip all new, and to recall and furnish all old, vehicles operating within Chicago with tamper-proof emission control devices, thus solving a substantial portion of the city's air pollution problem in one bold, quick stroke.

On July 31, 1970, the city of Chicago, individually and on behalf of all Illinois citizens who are residents of Chicago, filed a 20-count complaint against the major automobile and truck manufacturers, alleging that the motor vehicles manufactured and sold by the defendants substantially contribute to air pollution in Chicago by their daily emissions of tons of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter while being used in the usual and customary manner intended for such vehicles; that contamination of Chicago air by motor vehicles creates an unreasonable danger to public health, causing such vehicles to be unreasonably, inherently and imminently dangerous and defective; and that contamination of the air has injured and continues to injure Chicago in the maintenance of its property and the performance of its corporate functions of protecting the health and welfare of its citizens and has reduced the revenues of the city and endangered the health and welfare of its citizens. The complaint prayed that the court decree that motor vehicles are dangerous to the public health and order the defendants to cease the sale of motor vehicles within the city unless such vehicles are equipped with tamper-proof emission control devices. The complaint further prayed that the court order the defendants to furnish without charge to each plaintiff purchaser of any vehicle manufactured by the defendants in model years 1960 through 1970 a control device similar to that installed in new vehicles and meeting the court-created standards.

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for the reasons that Chicago was not a member of the class which it purported to represent; that the amount in controversy did not exceed $10,000 in respect to each alleged member of the plaintiff class; that plaintiff failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted under products liability law or improper design; that relief would conflict with federal regulation of motor vehicle emissions and would infringe upon an area of regulation specifically preempted by Congress and would constitute an undue burden on interstate commerce; that there was no basis for equitable relief; that the determination and enforcement of relief are matters best handled by an expert administrative agency; that the requested relief involving retroactive application of new standards would constitute a violation of due process; and that plaintiffs' claims were barred by the statute of limitations or by laches.

The city acknowledged in its brief in this court that "Chicago has filed this action as the first of its type in the country using the theory employed in the Complaint." The district court, in dismissing the complaint, agreed, saying:

"Plaintiff's claim is not grounded in a statute, but in the common law, the judicially manufactured law of products liability. Yet, it is clear that this is not an ordinary products liability case, that plaintiff's theory is by no means common and not yet law. In fact, plaintiff's cause, in theory and scope is unique." 332 F.Supp. 285, 289 (N.D.Ill.1971).

Before considering this theory, it will be helpful to summarize the legislative developments regarding air pollution.

As early as 1955, Congress enacted the Air Pollution Control Act,*fn1 which recognized the primary responsibilities and rights of the states, local governments, and other public agencies in controlling air pollution. The 1955 Act was replaced in 1963 by the Clean Air Act.*fn2 Under this Act, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare was directed to appoint a technical advisory committee to evaluate progress and recommend research on devices and fuels for the control of automotive vehicle emissions, which work was to be reported semi-annually to Congress by the Secretary. In 1965, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to include a section known as the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act,*fn3 which directed the Secretary to prescribe standards applicable to exhaust emissions from new motor vehicles.

The Air Quality Act of 1967*fn4 further amended the Clean Air Act and provided the basis for systematic control activities on a regional basis. The Act explicitly provided for preemption by the federal government of the entire field of standards for emissions from new motor vehicles.*fn5

After the complaint was filed in this case, Congress passed the Clean Air Amendments of 1970,*fn6 which included a substantial rewriting of the National Emissions Standards Act.*fn7 Prior to the 1970 legislation the National Emissions Standards Act provided that "actions to restrain such violations shall be brought . . . in the name of the United States." 42 U.S.C. § 1857f-3. The 1970 legislation amended this provision to provide that "any person may commence a civil action on his own behalf" against any person including the United States and any other governmental instrumentality who is alleged to be in violation of an emission standard of limitation under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1857h-2(a). The 1970 amendments also provided (42 U.S.C. § 1857h-2(e)):

"Nothing in this section shall restrict any right which any person (or class of persons) may have under any statute or common law to seek enforcement of any emission standard or limitation or to seek any other relief. . . ."

Since the city explicitly abandoned its claim to new vehicles covered by the 1970 amendments and since citizen suits were first permitted by the 1970 amendments, the district court held that "we will not entertain any action by this plaintiff with respect to motor vehicles covered by the 1967 federal legislation"-that is, new motor vehicles commencing with the 1968 model year. 332 F.Supp. at 291. We agree with the district court that federal preemption extends that far. The city of Chicago has not sought here to enforce the federal legislative and administrative standards, but instead seeks to have the federal court create a competing set of standards based on Illinois common law. If Illinois is barred and Chicago is barred from enforcing "any standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles . . . subject to this subchapter [1967 National Emissions Standard Act]," 42 U.S.C. § 1857f-6a(a), Chicago cannot seek to enforce through the federal courts different standards purportedly based on Illinois common law.

Preemption does not apply to used motor vehicles in the model years 1960-1967.*fn8

In Illinois v. City of Milwaukee, 406 U.S. 91, at 103, 92 S. Ct. 1385, at 1392, 31 L. Ed. 2d 712 (1972), the Court stated: "When we deal with air or water in their ambient or interstate aspects, there is a federal common law. . ."*fn9 However, the complaint of the city of Chicago in this case was framed in the strict liability idiom of Illinois common law ...

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