car wreck no seat belt

Car Wreck, No Seat Belt?

If I Didn’t Have a Seat Belt On When I Got in a Wreck Do I Lose My Case?

The simple answer is no, you do not lose your case, but it can reduce your recovery.

In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court issued a pivotal opinion in Nabors v. Romero which effectively overruled 40 years of Texas jurisprudence. In the Nabors case, the Supreme Court ruled that evidence of an individual’s use or non-use of a seat belt may be introduced as evidence in a car accident case of the Plaintiff’s negligence.

Ok, so How Does This Apply to Me?

Scenario

The law on this issue changed in 2015.  In order to understand the change in law, consider the following scenario:

You were a passenger in a vehicle involved in a wreck with a drunk truck driver. Say that both the driver of your vehicle and the drunk truck driver did something wrong to cause the wreck but you didn’t have your seat belt on, were thrown from the vehicle and suffered significant injuries.

Now obviously you as a passenger couldn’t have done anything to “cause” the wreck, right?

Well, short of intentionally grabbing the wheel while the car was moving, no you couldn’t have.

But clearly not wearing a seat belt possibly could have “contributed” to the cause of your injuries.

What Does the Old Law Say?

If we were under old Texas law, when your case is submitted to the jury to determine and apportion fault (aka negligence), the jury would only be able to decide whether the negligence of the drunk truck driver and/or the driver of the vehicle in which you were a passenger caused your injuries.

The jury would then be asked to determine each driver’s percentage of fault for your injuries – the sum total equaling 100%. And at no time would the jury be asked to determine if your failure to wear a seatbelt caused or contributed to your injuries.  Which clearly it possibly could have.

Ok, So What About the New Law and the Same Scenario?

Under the new law, when the case is handed to the jury to make a decision, the jury will be asked a few questions.

First, the jury will be asked to determine, if negligence of anyone caused your injuries. The question is presented to the jury in a “yes” or “no” format. Simply put, the jury will be asked:

Did the negligence, if any, of those named below proximately cause the the Plaintiff’s injuries?

Below that question will appear the names of the drunk truck driver, the driver of your vehicle, and you.  Next to each name will be a blank where the jury will write “yes” or “no.”

Surely the drunk truck driver will get a yes.  And lets assume for hypothetical purposes that the driver of your vehicle gets a yes too.

Now, if the defense attorney can convince the jury that you were negligent by not having your seatbelt on, the jury will put a yes next to your name as well.

While there are limited circumstances when not wearing a seat belt isn’t negligent, it should not be too hard for a defense lawyer to convince a jury to say that you were negligent for failing to wear a seat belt.  Click or ticket, right?

After the first question, the jury moves on to the apportionment of fault question.

Apportionment of Fault Under New Law

Here, the jury is asked by the judge to assign a percentage of fault for your injuries for each person they wrote “yes” next to in question one. The percentages that the jury assigns must total 100%.

Again, assume for this hypothetical that the jury wrote “yes” next to all three.

A few different things can happen here and a few rules should be kept in mind. If the jury assigns greater than 50% fault to you (the Plaintiff), you collect no money. If the jury assigns a percentage of fault of 50% or less to you (the Plaintiff) then you are still permitted to collect damages, but your damages are reduced by your percentage of fault.  All clear as mud?

Award of Damages

In the third question, the jury is asked to determine what sum of money, if awarded in cash would adequately compensate you (the Plaintiff) for your injuries.

Let’s assume for easy math purposes that the jury says $100,000.

If the jury assigns 50% fault to you, 40% to the drunk driver and 10% to the driver of your vehicle, then you collect $40,000 from the drunk driver and $10,000 from the driver of your vehicle.

Under Texas law, this calculation of damages is known as proportionate responsibility.

Now, if the jury assigns 51% fault to you (the jury has to assign percentages in whole numbers) and 40% fault to the drunk driver and 9% fault to the driver of your vehicle, you collect nothing even though the drunk driver’s percentage stayed the same and he was drunk.

You may be thinking to yourself, surely the jury would say the drunk driver was more than 50% at fault for my injuries – but for his drunken driving, I wouldn’t be injured. That may be the case. A good lawyer may be able to convince the jury of that. And different facts under different scenarios may support that. But there is always a chance that the defense convinces the jury that you were at least 51% at fault for your injuries.

What’s the Moral Of the Story?

The moral of the story, if you haven’t already figured it out, is wear your stinkin’ seat belt. Common sense and your desire to stay alive should be enough to convince you to wear your seatbelt. But if monetary incentive if what you need, hopefully this article did the trick.

As always, if you’re involved in a wreck and need the assistance of lawyer, don’t hesitate to contact the Warriors For Justice at Hutchison & Stoy, PLLC today. We’re here to help—even IF you weren’t wearing a seatbelt.  You can reach us at (817) 820-0100 or fill out a free case evaluation form online.

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