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Texas Supreme Court Reconsiders Ban on Seat-Belt Evidence

Over the past 40 years, evidence of a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt was inadmissible in Texas car accident lawsuits because, even though it could exacerbate the plaintiff’s injuries, it could not, in and of itself, cause a car accident. This rule was a way of protecting plaintiffs from the all-or-nothing effect of the contributory negligence doctrine. Under the contributory negligence doctrine, a plaintiff who was 1% or more at fault for an accident could not recover any compensation from the defendant. The rule originated with case law and was codified, and then the statute was repealed in 2003. In spite of the legislative repeal of the rule, the rule making seat-belt evidence inadmissible still stood, since the case law was still in effect.

In the recent, important ruling in Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero, the Texas Supreme Court reconsidered the rule banning seat-belt evidence. The case arose when a transport truck collided with a Chevrolet Suburban carrying eight passengers, including three adults and five children who were part of two families. When the transport truck slowed, the driver of the Suburban pulled into the opposite traffic lane and tried to pass. While the Suburban passed, the truck made a left turn and hit the Suburban, which rolled several times and killed an adult passenger and hurt the rest of the people in the car. There was conflicting evidence about who was belted into their seats. All of the occupants were ejected except the driver and one of the children.

The two families sued the transport truck company and its driver. At trial, the truck company tried to introduce expert testimony from a biomechanical engineer that seven out of the eight Suburban occupants were unbelted and that this failure caused their injuries and the fatality. The truck company also wanted to introduce a citation issued to the driver for failing to properly restrain child passengers.

The trial court excluded this evidence regarding the failure to use seat belts. It also found the engineer was unqualified to offer the opinion that failure to use seat belts caused the injuries. At the conclusion of the trial, the truck company was found 51% responsible for the crash, and the Suburban driver was 49% responsible. The families were awarded collectively over $2.3 million.

The truck company appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the lower court’s judgment because of the rule making seat-belt evidence inadmissible. However, it didn’t separately consider whether the engineer’s testimony regarding seat belts as the cause of the injury was properly excluded.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider the viability of the case law that created the seat-belt rule after the Legislature had repealed the statutory rule banning this type of evidence. The Court explained that Texas now follows the comparative negligence rule, in which the trier of fact determines each party’s percentage of fault for an accident. The plaintiff is able to recover, but the recovery is reduced by the percentage by which he or she is at fault. As long as a plaintiff is not more than 50% at fault in Texas, he or she can recover, with a reduction based on his or her percentage of fault.

The defendant in this case argued that a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt, even if it didn’t cause the accident, should reduce his or her recovery if the failure to use the seat belt caused or contributed to his or her injuries.

The Court found that in light of the comparative negligence doctrine, the seat-belt rule could not stand. The fact-finder is to assign responsibility to a plaintiff or plaintiffs who in any way cause or contribute to their own personal injuries or death. The Court concluded that seat-belt evidence is now admissible in car accident cases if it is relevant. The court of appeals’ judgment was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

If you are hurt in a motor vehicle accident, it’s important to retain experienced personal injury attorneys. The experienced San Antonio car accident attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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