What is the “Seat Belt Defense?” How does it affect your rights as a defendant?

Posted on Mar 2nd, 2015 in Uncategorized

The following excerpt is taken from Gregory R. Giometti’s Colorado Automobile Accident Litigation and Insurance Handbook (2nd Ed.)

 

Issues Relating to Liability and Damages in Litigation of Motor Vehicle Accident Claims

The “Seat Belt Defense”

Defendant is entitled to jury instruction on seat belt defense even if no evidence of relationship between failure to use and injuries

 

Once evidence is presented that a plaintiff failed to wear a seat belt, the trial

court must instruct the jury on the seat belt defense, even if the defendant

presents no evidence showing a causal relationship between the failure to

wear a seat belt and enhancement of the plaintiff’s injuries. To request a jury

instruction regarding mitigation of damages, the defendant does not bear the

burden of proving a causal relationship between the plaintiff’s non-use of a

seat belt and the plaintiff’s pain and suffering damages. Anderson v. Watson,

953 P.2d 1284 (Colo. 1998).

 

Putting teeth in the seat belt defense, the court in Anderson v. Watson, 953 P.2d 1284 (Colo. 1998), held that once evidence was presented that a plaintiff failed to wear a seat belt, the trial court could instruct the jury on the seat belt defense, even if the defendant presented no evidence showing a causal relationship between the failure to wear a seat belt and enhancement of the plaintiff’s injuries.

 

The case arose from an automobile accident on October 24, 1992. The plaintiff, Anderson, was injured in a T-bone collision after the defendant, Watson, ran a red light. Anderson was taken to the emergency room, where she was treated for cervical strain. Eventually, Anderson underwent shoulder surgery. At trial, Watson admitted negligence but contested the nature and extent of Anderson’s injuries. Anderson asserted that she was still suffering from lower back, shoulder, and neck pain due to the accident. As an affirmative defense, Watson asserted that Anderson had not been wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident. However, very limited evidence was presented at trial regarding the relationship between Anderson’s injuries and her failure to wear a seat belt. Anderson’s medical experts did not testify as to this issue, nor did the defendant present any expert testimony. Despite this limited evidence, the trial court instructed the jury on the seat belt defense. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Anderson, but awarded no damages for pain and suffering and only $640 for economic loss. Anderson appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed in Anderson v. Watson, 929 P.2d 6 (Colo. App. 1996). The supreme court granted certiorari to address the issue of whether the trial court had properly instructed the jury on the seat belt defense. Although the supreme court agreed with the result reached by the court of appeals, it disagreed with its reasoning that a defendant was required to prove a causal connection between failure to wear a seat belt and enhancement of injury before the jury could be instructed on the seat belt defense.

 

The supreme court noted that the seat belt defense was based upon C.R.S. § 42-7-237, which provided that it was mandatory for drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts. In addition, the statute stated that evidence of failure to wear a seat belt “‘shall be admissible to mitigate [pain and suffering] damages with respect to any person who is involved in a motor vehicle accident and who seeks in any subsequent litigation to recover damages for injuries resulting from the accident.’” 953 P.2d at 1290. Only damages for pain and suffering were subject to mitigation. Recovery of economic loss and medical expenses was not limited by failure to wear a seat belt.

 

Interpreting this statute, the supreme court held that a defendant was not required to prove affirmatively a causal connection between failure to wear a seat belt and enhancement of the plaintiff’s injuries before the jury could be instructed on the seat belt defense. Id. at 1291- If the defendant came forward with some competent evidence that the plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident, the statute required that the seat belt defense be submitted to the jury. “By decreasing the amount of pain and suffering damages in proportion to injuries attributable to seat belt non-use, the General Assembly sent a signal to drivers and front seat passengers to buckle up.” Id. at 1290.

 

The court held that once the defendant established, or the plaintiff admitted, that the plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt, the plaintiff could then produce evidence to demonstrate that there was no causal connection between his or her injuries and the non-use of a seat belt. Such evidence could include expert testimony. If the plaintiff presented expert testimony, the defendant could counter with his or her own experts. The defendant could also present expert testimony even if the plaintiff chose not to do so. However, the defendant did not have the burden of coming forward with expert testimony to prove causation.

 

In conclusion, the court held that the defendant had to prove a prima facie case of seat belt non-use before the jury could be instructed on that defense. However, “[f]ailure to wear a seat belt automatically satisfies any obligation on the defendant’s part to show a causal relationship to pain and suffering,” and the defendant was not required to present further evidence, such as expert testimony, before the jury could be instructed regarding the seat belt defense. Id. at 1292. The court held that “the defendant is not required to prove a causal relationship between the plaintiff’s non-use of a seat belt and pain and suffering damages.” Id.

 

What are your thoughts on the “Seat Belt Defense?” Do you agree with the decision made in this case? How does this change your thoughts on the importance of wearing a seatbelt as a preventative measure?

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