Federal agencies are using arcane regulations and legal opinions to shield automakers and others from challenges by consumers and states.
Near sunrise on a summer morning in 2001, Patrick Parker of Childress, Texas, swerved to avoid a deer and rolled his pickup truck. The roof of the Ford F-250 crumpled, and Parker didn't stand a chance. His neck broke and, at 37, he was paralyzed from the chest down. He sued, and Ford Motor Co. settled for an undisclosed amount.
"You can imagine what happens when you're belted in and the roof comes down even with the door," Parker said. "Your options are death or quadriplegia."
Parker's case and hundreds like it are behind a beefed-up roof safety standard proposed in August by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But safety regulators tucked into the proposed rule something vehicle makers have long desired: protection from future roof-crush lawsuits like the one Parker filed.
The surprise move seeking legal protection for automakers is one in a series of recent steps by federal agencies to shield leading industries from state regulation and civil lawsuits on the grounds that they conflict with federal authority.
Some of these efforts are already facing court challenges. However, through arcane regulatory actions and legal opinions, the Bush administration is providing industries with an unprecedented degree of protection at the expense of an individual's right to sue and a state's right to regulate.