Judges Now Required to Allow Juries to Consider Seat Belt Use in Accident Settlements

Feb 24, 2015

Nothing puts the brakes on Austin drivers like winter weather. In a freeze last year, emergency services responded to more than 250 accidents, none of which were fatal, in one day. While the late starts at schools and offices across the city this morning preempted a slew of pileups, drivers in North Texas could see as much as four inches of snow from a cold snap that’s expected to last until tomorrow morning.

Suffice to say, there are sure to be a few accidents in Texas over the next few days, but, snow or no, a recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court could affect court cases handling everything from fender benders to fatal accidents to faulty airbag lawsuits in courts.

Until last week, it was up to judges to determine if seatbelt evidence was relevant to cases in which one person sued another for negligence after a car accident. The new ruling requires that they do so.

“[T]he failure to use a seat belt does not cause an accident, and it is those who cause accidents who should pay,” wrote Justice Jeffrey Brown in the court’s opinion on Nelson Well Services v. Romero. “But as we have pointed out, our legal system now takes a broader view toward assigning responsibility for a plaintiff’s damages.”

That broader view pushes judges to allow juries to consider seatbelt use, whereas before it left it to a judge's discretion.

So, for example, if Person A is hit while sitting at a stop sign by Person B, then Person B is obviously at fault. But say Person A wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and was ejected from the car. Previously, it was up to the judge to decide whether a jury could consider that information in a case’s settlement. Now, it’s a requirement, meaning Person B would have to pay less in a settlement because there was negligence on both sides.

In 1974 — before seatbelts were required by law — the court ruled seatbelt evidence couldn’t be considered in a final settlement. Eleven years later, when the legislature finally wrote a law requiring seatbelts, lawmakers echoed the ruling, disallowing any seatbelt evidence from being admitted in civil cases. That provision was repealed in 2003, but didn’t clarify the use of seatbelts in trials.

The court’s decision, says Lin McCraw of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, throws out 40 years of case law by requiring judges to consider the evidence, but also corrects a shortfall in state law.

“I think where we’re really going to see the effect is…in that scenario where a driver is rear-ended,” he says. “A smart defense lawyer is going to look at this and say, ‘If you would’ve had a seatbelt on, you wouldn’t have been injured as badly. Therefore, you need to discount the compensation amount.’”  

While the ruling is likely to impact cases involving car accidents, McCraw says it’s also likely to impact cases in which manufacturers are held responsible for faulty safety products, like a lawsuit against a car manufacturer for faulty airbags. So, if an airbag failure results in a death of a driver, and that driver isn’t wearing a seatbelt, it could negatively impact a plaintiff’s settlement in a suit against the manufacturer.