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Texas Supreme Court Reverses Course on Admissibility of Seat Belts at Trial

Photo of Brant Stogner

For the first time since 1974, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that an injured victim's failure to use a seat belt in a car accident case may now be offered as evidence at trial to apportion responsibility in civil lawsuits. In other words, defendants that negligently cause auto collisions are now going to be able to introduce evidence that the injured victims did not wear seatbelts and will even be able to argue that the injured victims were negligent, thereby reducing damages to the injured victims and the liability of the at-fault defendants. The decision reverses a $2.3 million jury verdict awarded to a family after one family member was killed and seven other passengers were injured after the vehicle they were traveling in was struck by another vehicle.

According to the Court's analysis in its opinion, back when the seat belt rule was first announced in 1974, which made seat belt use or nonuse inadmissible at trial, Texas courts analyzed recovery in motor vehicle accidents in an all-or-nothing scheme. If a defendant could show that an injured victim committed some negligence that contributed to the incident, recovery was completely prohibited for the injured victim. As a result, courts held that an injured victim's failure to use a seat belt was inadmissible, because whether or not a seat belt was worn does not ultimately contribute to the question of who was actually at fault for causing the collision or auto incident. The logic was sound. Whether the injured victim was wearing a seat belt or not has absolutely nothing to do with the question of who or what caused the incident.

Texas now uses a modified comparative negligence scheme, where a plaintiff's negligence can proportionally reduce the recovery as opposed to obliterating it. This appears to be the basis of the 180 degree turnabout in jurisprudence; however, this analysis ignores the 51% bar rule, which even under the current scheme, does still obliterate an injured victim's recovery if the injured victim is found to be 51% at fault for causing the incident. Speaking for a unanimous court, Justice Jeff Brown noted that unlike when the seat belt rule was first announced, seat belts are now required by law and have now become "an unquestioned part of daily life." While that is true, the logic has not changed from 1974. The question of who or what caused an auto collision does not turn in any way upon whether the injured victim was wearing a seat belt or not. Nevertheless, the Court has changed the rule, which will only serve to reduce the recoveries of those injured in auto collisions who were not wearing a seat belt.

If you or someone you know may have been injured or killed in an automobile accident or due to a defect in a vehicle, it is important to understand your right to recover. Contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-396-3964 or toll free at 1-800-594-4884 to learn about your rights.

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