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Knoxville — The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that automakers cannot be sued for failing to retroactively install air bag devices in cars made before air bags became mandatory.

The justices voted 5-4 that existing federal regulations block lawsuits by people using state laws to claim that companies are negligent for not improving their old products.

A University of Tennessee law professor said federal rules offer incentives to businesses to make improvements to their products.

“The law is structured to encourage companies to make changes that further improve the quality of the products they produce,” said Neil Cohen. “You cannot use a subsequent repair to prove a company was negligent before they made that change.”

Autos made after 1997 must have air bags for the driver and front-seat passenger. And a UT engineering professor with expertise on air bags said retrofitting cars with airbags is difficult.

“It varies from model to model and company to company,” said Dr. Tyler Kress. “Air bags require quick-firing sensors in the front and rear bumper areas, which are more easily installed on new cars.”

The high court’s ruling was narrowly applied to air bags, and did not discuss other safety features such as seat belts and windshields.