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Opening the Courts to Seat Belt Non-Use Evidence

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The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero, 456 S.W.3d 553 (Tex. 2015) has re-opened the national debate about whether courts should admit evidence of seat belt non-usage in lawsuits arising from motor vehicle crashes. The Romero decision reversed the course that Texas courts had followed for more than forty years to prohibit evidence showing that a crash-involved motorist had failed to buckle up.  In its place, the Court established a new rule allowing juries to consider evidence that a plaintiff failed to use an available seat belt in assessing comparative fault. In reaching its determination, the Court described the rule of exclusion previously followed by Texas courts as “an anachronism” that “may have been appropriate in its time,” but that has become “a vestige of a bygone legal system.” Because many states follow a form of the seat belt non-use exclusionary rule struck down in Romero, either barring the evidence outright or drastically limiting the effect that a jury can give to such evidence, the Texas Supreme Court’s pronouncement of a new approach may support re-evaluation of the treatment given to seat belt evidence in other states.

The former Texas rule set aside in Romero shares a common origin with the seat belt laws in most states. Decades ago, when the public had little familiarity with seat belts and rarely wore them, courts generally refused to recognize a duty to buckle up in order to minimize injuries if a crash occurred.  Beginning in 1984, however, in response to rulemaking actions by the U.S. Department of Transportation, states began enacting mandatory use statutes obligating drivers and some passengers to use seat belts. By the end of 1987, thirty-one states had enacted such laws; today all states except New Hampshire have statutes requiring seat belt usage. Despite the existence of a statute-based duty to wear seat belts, which would ordinarily support admission of evidence demonstrating a failure to fulfill that duty, many states at the time of enactment (such as Utah and South Carolina)incorporated admissibility prohibitions or limits into the mandatory use statutes. Such provisions set up what the Romero court identifies as a “contradictory” system that punishes seatbelt non-use with traffic citations and fines, on the one hand, but then allows unbelted plaintiffs who pursue crash-related civil lawsuit “to benefit from juries’ ignorance of their misconduct.” 456 S.W.3d at 565.

The Texas Supreme Court’s opinion in Romero identifies certain flaws in the rationale used to justify the exclusion of seat belt evidence. First, unlike the era in which many states enacted their seat belt statutes, seat belt use is now “an unquestioned part of daily life for the vast majority of drivers and passengers.” In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports in Traffic Safety Facts that the 2014 national seat belt use rate exceeded 86%. This demonstrates societal acceptance of seat belts and an expectation that motorists will use them.

Next, concerns that allowing juries to use seat belt non-usage evidence freely will unfairly prejudice unbelted plaintiffs or provide a windfall to at-fault defendants fail to acknowledge that, as a basic legal proposition, “everyone has to guard against foreseeable risks” and, in the context of driving on public roads, motorists “must anticipate the negligence of others.” Romero, 456 S.W.3d at 565-66. When juries apportion liability for an unbelted plaintiff’s injuries, no windfall will occur because “defendants will still be held liable for the damages they caused, but not the injuries the plaintiff caused by not using a seat belt.”

The Romero decision comes as a number of states have begun to re-examine the manner in which they treat seat belt non-usage evidence. For example, Oklahoma recently changed its statute to allow the admission of seat belt use or non-use evidence in most civil actions. As other states consider the propriety of retaining their exclusionary provisions, the Texas Supreme Court’s declaration in Romero that such rules have become “an oddity in light of modern societal norms” may prove influential.