New Decision Clarifies Failure to Use Seat Belt’s Effect On Lawsuit

Seat belt -- woman buckling up

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that a defendant could use the plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt as evidence against him if this conduct caused or was a cause of his injuries. Nabors v. Romero overruled the court’s prior decision set 40 years ago.

On Monday, the Texas Eighth District Court of Appeals in El Paso issued a complicated opinion in this significant case that affects the outcome of automobile and truck collision lawsuits.
On remand, the justices concluded that the trial court had abused its discretion when it excluded the defendant’s expert’s opinion that seat belts reduce the risk of ejections in serious rollovers. However the court affirmed the trial court’s exclusion of the defendant’s expert who blamed injuries to four of the minor plaintiffs on the adult occupants on other grounds.

The court further concluded that the defendant was harmed by inadmissibility of the seat belt evidence and expert testimony. The awards where the jury might have found four of the plaintiffs suffered worse injuries by being unrestrained were reversed and remanded back to the trial court.

Basis for Holding Seat Belt Information Inadmissible 

In the seminal case of Carnation Co. v. Wong, the Supreme Court held in 1974 that seat belt use was inadmissible. At the time, Texas law did not require vehicle occupants to buckle up, as seat belts had just been introduced.

Texas was a pure contributory negligence state at the time of the Carnation Co. decision, which meant plaintiffs were barred from recovery if they were found to be even 1% negligent. 

This harsh standard often left a plaintiff with no compensation from a clearly negligent defendant if the plaintiff made just a minor transgression. The court sought to balance this unjust outcome in Carnation Co. 

Supreme Court’s Decision Reflects Current Texas Laws

Texas laws have since changed. In 1985, legislators prohibited evidence of seat belt use or non use. Then a Texas statute enacted in 2001 required drivers and their all children under the age of 17 to be restrained, including children in car seats and others with a lap and shoulder belt. 

And Texas follows the modified comparative fault rule for determining liability. Under this rule, a plaintiff whose fault does not exceed 50 percent may recover damages, with the damages award reduced by the percentage of blame attributed to him.

Nabors v. Romero 

In the underlying lawsuit, the Romero family’s 1993 Suburban tumbled off the highway and made three revolutions after colliding with a large Nabors Well Services truck. The evidence conflicted as to how many of the SUV’s occupants were belted and how many were ejected. A child was ejected and died and three adults and four other children were injured, some severely.

Nabors attempted to introduce evidence that the occupants were not wearing their seat belts and the trial court excluded any reference to usage.

The trial court also mostly excluded any evidence from the defendant’s bio mechanical expert with the wonderful law school exam name of Dr. Funk under the standards articulated in E.I. du Pont de Nemours v. Robinson.

The jury found the defendant 51% at fault and awarded damages of $2.3 million to all of the plaintiffs except one and the defendant appealed. The El Paso court affirmed the exclusion of seat belt evidence based on Carnation Co.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last year that its 1974 decision was in conflict with the state’s statutes and societal changes, finding that most people would consider a person who doesn’t wear a seat belt at least partially responsible for his injuries.

The appellate court’s decision followed the Texas Supreme Court’s direction in sending several of the claims back to the trial court where seat belt use will be considered by a jury.

What this Ruling Means to Drivers

Defendants can now push some or all of the blame on you if you do not wear a seat belt, even if the negligent driver is 100 percent at fault for causing the accident. You could lose your right to be reimbursed for your damages as a result. You should contact a personal injury attorney if you have any questions regarding your collision.

Related posts:

Supreme Court Rules Non Use of Seat Belts is Admissible at Trial

Too Many Children Not Restrained, Hurt in Car and Truck Collisions

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