Should Seat Belt Use Be Considered In A Personal Injury Trial?

Of course I’m in favor of wearing seat belts, but not that long ago here in Texas a lot of people weren’t. The decision to wear one was a personal — even emotional — one. Many people considered them a nuisance and an unjustified intrusion into their lives. As a result, state legislators agreed when they finally required their use in 1985 that a plaintiff’s damages would not be reduced if he refused to do so in collision cases.

This has been the law in Texas for the last almost 30 years. And the spirit certainly lives on. In 2011, for example, Governor Perry vetoed the legislature’s ban against using cell phones while driving, arguing that government should not micromanage the lives of Texans.

Now the Texas Supreme Court, which has surprisingly never ruled on the question of whether trial courts can consider the plaintiff’s non-use of seat belts in personal injury trials, has granted a petition for review in a case that will be closely followed by both sides of the docket. The case is Nabors Wells Servs. v. Romero, 408 S.W.3d 39.

Martin Soto, 53, was driving with seven family members in a SUV in 2004. They were driving in the left lane on a state highway in far West Texas. A tractor-trailer driven by Lauro Garcia in the right lane suddenly moved to the left, hit the SUV, and caused it to roll over several times. The tractor trailer was 100% at fault. Injuries were catastrophic. Several passengers were ejected. One person was killed and two were severely injured. Most of the passengers were not wearing seat belts.

The family filed suit. The defense sought to introduce evidence of their non-use of the belts. The trial judge in Pecos County overruled the request. When the case finally came to trial in 2009, the jury split on liability and found the defendant trucker 51% negligent and Soto 49% at fault. The verdict was therefore reduced to a total of $2.3 million. The defendants appealed solely on the issue of the seat belt defense.

The El Paso Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict last year. The court held that evidence of seat belt non-usage was properly excluded because the Texas Transportation Code
barred its admission. Further, there was no relationship between not using a seat belt and how the collision occurred. Finally, the non-use did not mean that the plaintiffs had failed to mitigate damages, since they were not required to do so before they occurred. If a vehicle is at a complete stop and gets rear ended, the court reasoned, whether or not the driver was wearing a belt had nothing to do with who caused the collision. Here’s a wreck I passed as I was leaving the office last night on University Drive, for example.

The El Paso court carefully reviewed the statute’s history. Courts originally excluded evidence of seat belt usage because there was no law requiring that conduct. In the first case decided on the subject, Quinius v. Estrada, 448 SW2d 552 (Tex.Civ.App.–Austin 1969), an appellate court ruled that the plaintiff was not contributory negligent for not wearing his belt. Several years later, the Texas Supreme Court upheld an appellate court reaching the same conclusion in the case of King Son Wong v. Carnation Co.., 516 SW2d 116 (Tex. 1974) and > and affirmed a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on this issue in Kerby vs. Abilene Christian College, 503 S.W.2d 526 (Tex. 1974).

The Texas legislature enacted a law in 1985 requiring the use of seat belts but expressly amended the Texas Transportation Code, Section 545.413(g), and prohibited courts from allowing that evidence to be used against the plaintiff.

Things got murkier when the state legislature repealed Subsection (g) in the landmark tort reform package in 2003 and implicitly created the “seat belt defense.” However lawmakers did not expressly allow the inclusion of their non-use.

The Court must decide if the Legislature’s amendment of the Transportation Code in 2003 meant that evidence that belts were not fastened should be admissible or instead, if courts should be allowed to decide this question. After all, if lawmakers had wanted the new statute to allow the evidence, they could have easily said so.

Many troubling questions are raised. Can the Court arbitrarily rule — or allow the jury to surmise — that a plaintiff caused a collision because his seat belt was not on? Will doing so affect the jury’s deliberation on damages? Once the jury finds this out, how will it hold back from punishing the plaintiff or finding for the defendant out right?

That is exactly what happened in the Nabors case when the plaintiffs were found to be almost equally negligent when their driver did nothing to cause the collision.

The Court will have to overrule decades of prior decisions if it chooses to allow the non-usage of seat belts to be used against plaintiffs at trial. But given the Court’s decisions in the last 20 years, noone who follows the Court would be particularly shocked if it does just that.

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