John Smith was injured when the automobile she was driving collided with one driven by Richard Rowe. John Smith filed a claim with Richard Rowe’s auto insurer, State Farm.
State Farm argues that John was comparatively negligent because he was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the collision, which caused John harm.
If this case went to trial, State Farm would need to prove by the greater weight of the evidence that John’s failure to use a seat belt caused his harm.
F.S. 316.614(4)(b), provides that:
it is unlawful for any person . . . to operate a motor vehicle in this state unless the person is restrained by a safety belt.
Violation of this statute is evidence of negligence, but it is not, however, conclusive evidence of negligence. So the fact that John was not wearing a seat belt is evidence that he was careless, but the jury does not have to conclude that John was negligent.
If the liability adjuster finds that John violated this statute, he may consider that fact, together with the other facts and circumstances, in deciding whether John was negligent.
On the negligence in failing to wear a seat belt defense, the adjuster should decide whether John’s failure to wear his seat belt constitutes negligence, if so, whether that negligence was a contributing legal cause of injury or damage to John.
If the adjuster finds that John’s failure to wear a seat belt was not the cause of his injury, then he will not reduce the full value of John’s claim.
Thus, if the adjuster believes that the same injury would have happened even if John was wearing a seat belt, then he will not reduce the value of John’s case for failing to wear a seat belt.
Example #1 – Failure to Wear a Seat Belt is Not Cause of Injury
Richard was carelessly driving and crashes into John. John has a shoulder injury. Richard is insured with Geico. John was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident. Let’s assume that the adjuster from Geico does not argue that John’s failure to use seat belt was a cause of John’s shoulder injury.
Let’s assume that total amount of John’s damages are $20,000. The adjuster will give John the total amount of his damages, which is $20,000. This assumes that Richard has at least $20,000 in bodily injury liability insurance, and that there are no other factors which may affect the value of John’s claim.
Example #2 – Failure to Wear a Seat Belt is Cause of Injury
Let’s take the facts of Example #1. We will assume the crash happens in Florida, and the adjuster argues that John’s failure to use seat belt was a cause of John’s shoulder injury.
The adjuster will reduce the full value of John’s damages by John’s percentage of negligence for failing to wear a seat belt. So if the adjuster believes that John was 25% at fault for failing to wear a seat belt, the adjuster will make an offer that reflects a 25% reduction for John’s failure to wear a seat belt.
So the adjuster would offer of $15,000, which is $20,000 minus a reduction for John’s 25% negligence in failing to wear a seat belt.
How Will the Insurance Company Know If You Were Wearing a Seat Belt?
The responsible parties insurance company will look at the crash report. It says whether the occupants were wearing a seat belt.
The image below is from a real Florida car crash report. It said that this passenger was wearing a shoulder and lap belt.
Here is what the car – that he was in – looked like after the accident.
He did not take an ambulance to the hospital. Later on, he later went to the hospital.
However, the hospital record said that he was unrestrained (not wearing a seat belt). He had a few follow up medical visits with a doctor. The doctor diagnosed him with soft tissue injuries.
The hospital bill was over $15,000. We asked them to reduce it. They reduced it to $7,500.
Auto Club South Insurance Company (AAA) insured the careless driver.
The good news?
AAA Insurance paid us the $25,000 bodily injury liability (BIL) policy limits to settle. This was the maximum amount that AAA had to pay under the insurance policy.
The claim was settled within 3 months after the accident. I represented this passenger.
It gets better:
I also settled his mother’s personal injury case for $25,000. She had whiplash and soft tissue injuries.
Insurance Company May Look at Paramedic and Hospital Records to See if You Were Wearing a Seat Belt
The insurance company may also look at the paramedic report to see if you were wearing a seat belt. If the paramedics came to the scene and treated you, there will be a report.
Likewise, the hospital records will also say whether you, or the paramedics, told them that you were wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident.
Driver Ejected and Killed in Crash Found 70% at Fault for Not Wearing Seat Belt
Candice Jones, the daughter and personal representative of the Estate of Ryland Nye, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Michael Alayon, the driver of the vehicle involved in the accident which resulted in Nye’s death.
Defendant rear-ended Nye’s vehicle which caused Nye’s car to strike a guardrail and overturn, resulting in Nye’s ejection from the vehicle. Nye’s death resulted either when he struck the pavement or when he was hit by other motorists thereafter.
At trial he admitted liability for causing the accident but disputed whether his actions caused Nye’s death, alleging that Nye’s failure to use a seatbelt constituted comparative negligence.
Jones presented evidence that the decedent always wore a seat belt, although he was not wearing one on the morning of the accident. His vehicle had a seat belt, but the investigating officer testified it had coins or an obstruction inside of it, which made it inoperable.
In the wife’s testimony, she explained that when the decedent would pay tolls on the turnpike he would take off his seat belt to get into his pocket for change. She thought that some of the coins had fallen into the belt mechanism in that way.
On the Saturday before the accident, she became aware of the malfunctioning seat belt and gave the decedent some tweezers to try to get the coins out, but he was not able to do so. She understood that he was going to have to buy another belt to fix it, but the weekend intervened.
The following day was a Sunday, followed by Columbus Day, and the accident occurred early in the morning on Tuesday while the decedent was on his way to work. The defense presented expert evidence that the decedent’s failure to wear a seatbelt caused his death.
The personal representative of the estate asked the court to rule that Alayon shouldn’t be allowed to place blame on Nye for not wearing a seat belt because. The argument was that there was no evidence that the seat belt was operational at the time of the accident.
The defense argued the initial burden was on the defense to prove the car had seat belts, at which point the burden shifted to plaintiff to demonstrate the seat belts were non-operational.
A jury question still would remain, the defense argued, as to whether there was any negligence on the part of the decedent which resulted in the belt’s inoperability. The court denied the motion for a directed verdict, concluding that the issue was one for the jury.
During its closing argument, the defense argued both that the plaintiff’s theory of how the coins got stuck in the seat belt was not believable and that the Alayon was negligent in not getting the belt fixed.
Jury Award Reduced by 70% Because Driver Didn’t Wear Seat Belt
The jury awarded the minor daughter $30,000 for loss of support and services and $7,000 for pain and suffering.
It awarded Jones nothing for her claim of loss of services.
Since the driver was 70% at fault (for failing to wear a seat belt), his family will only get 30% of the total verdict.
The appeals court said that statutory law and case law permit a jury to consider more factors than simply the availability and operability of a seatbelt.
In 1986 the Florida Legislature enacted the Florida Safety Belt Law, which established that it is unlawful “[t]o operate a motor vehicle in this state unless the person is restrained by a safety belt.” § 316.614(4)(b), Fla. Stat. (1986).
The statute provides that a violation “shall not constitute negligence per se, nor shall such violation be used as prima facie evidence of negligence or be considered in mitigation of damages, but such violation may be considered as evidence of comparative negligence, in any civil action.” § 316.614(10), Fla. Stat. (2006).
The supreme court addressed the effect of this statute on the common law seat belt defense in Ridley v. Safety Kleen Corp., 693 So. 2d 934 (Fla. 1996). The court noted that the statute “makes no exception to its strict terms as to whether the vehicle is equipped with an available and fully operational seat belt.” Id. at 943. But the court found that, because
the legislature did not make the failure to wear a seat belt negligence per se or prima facie evidence of negligence[,] . . . . we conclude a jury may still consider the availability or operability of a seat belt in its broader negligence analysis since it is part of the circumstances upon which the jury may decide whether the plaintiff’s omission was reasonable.
Id. at 943 n.14 (emphasis added).
The Jones appeals court said that it understands Ridley to hold that the seatbelt statute does not require the defendant to show that the plaintiff had an available and fully operational seatbelt as a prerequisite to asserting a comparative negligence defense.
Instead, the failure to wear a seatbelt is an element of comparative negligence.
The jury can consider all of the surrounding circumstances, including the inoperability of the belt and the reason why it is inoperable, to determine whether the plaintiff was comparatively negligent. Cf. DiMauro v. Metro. Suburban Bus Auth., 105 A.D.2d 236, 244-45 (N.Y. App. Div. 1984) (plaintiff’s voluntary decision to sit in a seat that plaintiff knew had inoperable seat belt, where other seats with working seat belts were available, could be considered in mitigation of damages).
Ridley directed courts to stop using Florida Standard Jury Instruction (Civil) 6.14 which was drafted to implement the holding of Pasakarnis.
That instruction had required the jury to determine “whether the greater weight of the evidence shows [that the automobile occupied by (claimant) was equipped with an available and fully operational seat belt,] [and] that (claimant) did not use the seat belt[.]” Ridley, 693 So. 2d at 937 n.3.
Instead, the present Model Instruction No. 2 of the Florida Standard Jury Instructions (Civil), written for an auto accident case involving the plaintiff’s comparative negligence including failure to wear a seat belt, directs the jury to determine “whether Jane Doe was herself negligent in the operation of her vehicle and/or in failing to wear her seat belt, if so, whether that negligence was a contributing legal cause of injury or damage to Jane Doe.” In re Standard Jury Instructions in Civil Cases—Report No. 12-01, 130 So. 3d 596, 636 (Fla. 2013)(Model Instr. No. 2).
Thus, proof that a seatbelt was available and fully operational is not a prerequisite to establishing the comparative negligence of the plaintiff. A jury must still consider all of the circumstances to determine whether the plaintiff was comparatively negligent in causing his or her injuries through the failure to wear a seatbelt.
That the available seatbelt may be inoperable is certainly a factor for the jury to consider along with evidence of the plaintiff’s negligence, or lack thereof, in driving the vehicle with an inoperable seat belt, which is a violation of the statute, unless one of the statutory exceptions applies.
1. Passenger in Front Seat
In Florida, passengers in the front seat of a motor vehicle must also wear a seat belt.
2. Minors in the vehicle
All minors in the vehicle are required to wear a seat belt. F.S. 316.614(4)(a)
Back (Rear) Seat Passengers May Be At Fault For Failing to Wear a Seat Belt
In Florida, adult back seat passengers are not required to wear a seat belt. However, minors are required to wear one.
That said, I believe that an adjuster will reduce the full value of your case for your comparative negligence if you’re a passenger in the back seat of a motor vehicle and you weren’t wearing a seat belt, and it contributed to your injury.
A Florida appeals court said that the seat belt law applies to back seat passengers (as well as front seat passengers.) In that case, at the time of the accident Lorestani was riding as a passenger in the front seat.
Tehrani was riding in the rear seat. Neither were wearing seat belts.
They were both injured after a wrecker struck them.
The jury gets to decide if the rear seat passenger was negligent in failing to wear an available and operational seat belt. In order for the careless driver to successfully use this defense, the failure to wear a seat belt must have caused the passenger’s injuries.
4. Cases where front seat occupant strikes dashboard.
Some of the typical cases that liability insurers fight are cases where a front seat occupant strikes the dashboard and injures his or her face. The insurer may argue that if the front seat passenger was wearing a seat belt, there is no way that he or she would have struck the dashboard.
I represented a driver of a car that was hit from behind. He had a serious eye injury.
I settled the case for the $10,000 liability limits with State Farm.
In which vehicles do you not have to wear a seat belt?
You are not required to wear a safety belt in the following vehicles:
- Employee of a newspaper home delivery service while delivering newspapers on home delivery routes.
- School buses.
- Buses used for transportation of persons for compensation.
- Farm equipment.
- Trucks of a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 26,000 pounds.
- Motorcycle, moped or bicycle.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2014 and has been completely revamped and updated.