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Seat Belts and Car Accident Cases

A Houston car accident lawyer may have difficulty in defending a case if certain laws are broken. For example, a person’s failure to use a seat belt, though it did not cause the car accident, could jeopardize his or her settlement if it can be shown that the failure to use a seat belt caused or contributed to their injuries?

The courts of the various states have typically not absolved plaintiffs of a duty to use seat belts, nor has it held seat-belt evidence irrelevant. One option was to treat it as evidence of a plaintiff’s failure to mitigate his damages—a doctrine typically applied to a post-occurrence action, such as when a plaintiff fails to follow his doctor’s treatment instructions.

Courts were accustomed to instructing juries to consider a plaintiff’s failure to mitigate when awarding damages, but the doctrine proved awkward when applied to pre-occurrence actions—how can one mitigate damages that have not yet occurred?

Comparative Negligence

The other option was to treat seat-belt nonuse as contributory negligence, which would entirely bar a plaintiff’s recovery. But the contributory negligence rule has given way to a system of comparative negligence, where the court assigns percentages of fault to the different parties.

The Texas high court recently observed that the proportionate-responsibility statute “indicates the legislature’s desire to compare responsibility for injuries rather than bar recovery, even if the claimant was partly at fault or violated some legal standard.”

Although it did not then directly address the distinction between injury-causing and occurrence-causing negligence, the reference to “injuries” was not accidental—it reflected the language chosen by the legislature in the proportionate-responsibility statute. Under that scheme, the fact-finder must allocate the “percentage of responsibility” for each claimant, defendant, settling person, and responsible third party.

Responsibility for Damages

Though the facts of the case, such as who caused the car accident, shape the narrative of the case and rightly contribute to the fact-finder’s responsibility apportionment, the law specifies the apportionment should ultimately be based on responsibility for the damages suffered, in this case personal injury and death. Accordingly, the question is not simply who caused the car accident, but who caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

“We believe most reasonable people considering who caused a plaintiff’s injuries in a car accident would not lean on a logical distinction between occurrence-causing and injury-causing conduct. Rather, most would say a plaintiff who breaks the law or otherwise acts negligently by not using a seat belt is at least partially responsible for the harm that befalls him,” the Texas court ruled.

Common Sense Approach

This is true even if he did not cause the car accident, provided it can be shown the failure to buckle up exacerbated his injuries. Failure to use a seat belt will sometimes exacerbate a plaintiff’s injuries or lead to his death. Accordingly, the conclusion is unavoidable that failure to use a seat belt is one way in which a plaintiff can “cause or contribute to cause in any way” his own “personal injuries” or “death.”

The first thing to remember is – wear your seat belt! But if you forget to do so and suffer an injury, not wearing the seat belt will not bar you from winning some damages, although they might be lower than they otherwise would have been.  If you’ve been injured in an auto accident in which you were not wearing a seat belt, contact an experienced Houston Car Accident Attorney for a Free Consultation,

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