Car Crashes And Seat Belts: The Texas Seat Belt Law
After more than 40 years of seat belt use being inadmissible evidence in Texas, the defense is now able to introduce before the jury evidence that the Plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt. How will this affect car wreck cases? We still don’t know the full answer to this question but clearly, this will have a huge impact in cases where the Plaintiff was not wearing his seat belt.
In two cases in 1973 and 1974 the Texas Supreme Court held that evidence of a Plaintiff’s non-use of a seat belt was not admissible. At the time of this decision, Texas did not have a law requiring the use of seat belts. Also, at the time of this decision, a Plaintiff could not win his case if he was found to be even 1% at fault. Since then, both of these laws have changed.
Now, the Texas Transportation Code requires all front seat passengers to wear a seat belt. Passengers in the back seat must wear a seat belt if they are under the age of 17. Of course, Texas has for quite some time now been a Proportionate Responsibility state where the Plaintiff can win his case even if he is found to be 50% responsible for the accident. (See my article on Comparative Fault in Texas.)
LAW REGARDING EVIDENCE OF SEAT BELT USE
In the 1980’s, when the seat belt law was first enacted, the law specifically prohibited the use of seat belt evidence. This followed precedent established by case law. In 2003, as part of tort reform legislation, this provision of the law was repealed, leaving only case law to speak on this matter.
SUPREME COURT CASE
In Nabors Well Services LTD. Vs. Romero, decided by the Texas Supreme Court in 2015, the long established case law prohibiting evidence of nonuse of seat belts was overturned. With this decision, a jury can now consider the nonuse of seat belts in deciding how to apportion responsibility in car wreck cases.
NEW LAW WILL GREATLY REDUCE PLAINTIFF’S DAMAGES
Under the old law, keeping this type of evidence from the jury was a huge help to the Plaintiff. Al-though, in some cases, this may have been obvious (when Plaintiff had been thrown out of his vehicle, or when he was thrown against the windshield), it was still very much in the Plaintiff’s favor that the jury could not be told. This prevented defense attorneys from cross-examining the Plaintiff on this point and from mentioning this in final argument to the jury. It also prevented any evidence from medical or other experts regarding how Plaintiff’s injuries would not have happened or would not be as severe had Plaintiff been wearing a seat belt.
Now, defense attorneys can hang their entire case on the Plaintiff’s nonuse of his seat belt. They will not only cross examine the Plaintiff on this but they will hire experts (medical doctors, bio-engineers) to opine that the majority, if not all, of Plaintiff’s injuries were caused by his failure to use his seat belt. This could have drastic effects on Plaintiffs who have suffered severe injuries.
Ironically, this new law will have little or no affect in small, whiplash cases, as these injuries occur with or without a seat belt. Also, in these small cases, it is almost impossible for the defense to prove the Plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt as the Plaintiff is usually out of the vehicle before the police arrive and before the defendant driver can observe if Plaintiff was wearing his seat belt. However, evidence of nonuse of seat belts can be devastating to a Plaintiff in a case of severe injuries. It has always been a good idea to wear your seat belt. Now, it is even more important to do so.
If you have been injured and have any questions, please call me for a free consultation.
Law Offices of Robert Rodriguez