Seat Belt Defense Law
With the recent enactment of federal laws requiring automobile manufactures to provide seat belts in vehicles, along with state laws mandating the use of seat belts, seat belt use is at an all time high. Studies indicate that nearly two-thirds of Americans buckle up each time they drive or ride in an automobile. However, despite the increased use of seat belts, car accidents caused over 41,000 deaths and nearly 3.2 million injuries in 1998. Given these statistics, it is not surprising that car accident cases make up a substantial portion of litigation. Moreover, seat belt usage has greatly influenced personal injury litigation. Courts continue to debate the legal significance of a plaintiff-victim’s failure to use a seat belt when assigning contributory liability and mitigation of damages. An attempt by the defendant-driver to offer evidence at trial of the plaintiff’s failure to use the seat belt is known as the seat belt defense.
The Development and Application of the Seat Belt Defense
The prevalence of seat belt use is a new phenomenon in America. Not until recently, through the implementation of both federal and state laws, have Americans used seat belts at the rate used today. From the 1950’s, when seat belts were first installed in automobiles, through the 1980’s, seat belt use was minimal. Recognizing the existence of a device that could greatly reduce the devastating results of car accidents, Congress finally took action.
In 1966 Congress acknowledged the need for regulations to oversee and promote safety on American highways, passing the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act, thereby creating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 1984, in an attempt to push lawmakers, auto manufacturers, and citizens into action, the NHTSA issued “Standard 208”. Standard 208 provided that unless at least two-thirds of states passed mandatory seat belt usage laws, all new cars beginning with 1990 models would have to be equipped with automatic restraints, such as airbags. Further, Standard 208 mandated that every state had to adopt the seat belt defense, either by enacting legislation or through judicial action. Since the promulgation of Standard 208, every state except New Hampshire has enacted mandatory seat belt use laws.
National seat belt use has dramatically increased since the enactment of Standard 208. In 1996, over 68% of all US drivers regularly wore seat belts. It cannot be disputed that those wearing seat belts at the time of a car accident sustained less severe injuries than those who had not buckled up. Generally, drivers are now aware that seat belt usage will greatly decrease their chances of receiving injuries if involved in an accident. Therefore, most Americans buckle up, not only as an attempt to protect their own lives, but also to comply with state laws requiring seat belt use. The seat belt defense becomes an issue when the defendant-driver attempts to offer evidence of the plaintiff-victim’s failure to use a seat belt as a defense to the plaintiff’s claim.
Most often, the seat belt defense is used by defendant-drivers to show: 1) the plaintiff-victims contributed to the severity of their injuries by not using a seat belt; and 2) the plaintiff-victims failed to mitigate damages. The defendant-drivers are trying to show that their actions alone did not cause all the injuries plaintiff-victim is claiming and therefore, should not be held solely responsible for all injuries suffered. Also, the seat belt defense has been used to show that the plaintiff-victim did not take all reasonable steps to secure his or her own safety, therefore, any damage award should be decreased to reflect the failure to minimize the damages.
Generally, however, evidence offered to show that the plaintiff-victim failed to use a seat belt at time of impact has been held to be inadmissible in court. Courts have decided that the party responsible for causing the accident is responsible for all the injuries caused by his or her conduct. That is, in the case of a car accident, the injuries suffered by plaintiff-victim would not have occurred in the absence of the defendant-driver’s conduct. Thus, because the failure to use a seat belt did not cause the accident, the plaintiff-victim’s seat belt usage is irrelevant to the cause of the accident. Non-compliance with state mandated seat belt laws is held not to constitute negligence, which could decrease the amount of damages awarded to a plaintiff-victim. Thus, the plaintiff-victim’s failure to use a seat belt cannot be offered as evidence by the defense to show that the victim contributed to his or her own injuries.
Further, courts will not allow a defendant-driver to offer evidence of plaintiff-victim’s failure to use a seat belt to show a failure to mitigate, or minimize damages. Allowing such evidence would be inappropriate because the duty to mitigate can only arise after the injury occurs. The decision by a plaintiff-victim to use the seat belt is made before an accident occurs. Therefore, this evidence does not fit into a “mitigation of damages” context and cannot be used for mitigation purposes.
In the last 40 years, the Federal and State governments, along with public interest groups and auto manufactures, have made great efforts to provide both safer highways and safer vehicles. Although the nation is experiencing the highest rate of regular seat belt use in its history, devastating auto accidents occur everyday, forever changing the lives of the victims and their families. If you are a victim of an automobile accident, you should consider seeking compensation for your injuries. An experienced personal injury attorney will be in the position to help you recover, even if you were not wearing your seat belt. A driver, who clearly causes an accident that leads to great bodily injury, is no less responsible just because the victim was not using a seat belt.
Form: Glossary – Personal Injury Claim Terms
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