By Matt Soliday
In a landmark ruling the Texas Supreme Court in Nabors Well Service, Ltd v. Romero, has overturned a long standing bar on the admissibility of evidence of seat belt use in car accident cases. In this case, several of the Plaintiffs were thrown from their vehicle because they were not wearing their seat belts, and suffered severe injuries. Defendants attempted to argue that the Plaintiffs’ own negligence in failing to wear their seatbelts caused their injuries to be much more severe than they would have been if they had been wearing their seatbelts. The trial court refused to admit evidence that the Plaintiffs were not wearing their seatbelts under long standing precedent. Defendants appealed this ruling and the Texas Supreme Court overturned their previous decisions finding that the rule had outlived its usefulness.
Since 1974, evidence of a Plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt has been inadmissible in cases involving car accidents. Under Texas’ former contributory negligence scheme, Plaintiffs could not recover if their own negligence contributed in any way to their injuries. The Texas Supreme Court, however, adopted a rule that prohibited the admission of seat belt use evidence to protect Plaintiffs from what they considered the harsh result of not being able to recover damages from an accident caused by a negligent driver if they were not wearing their seatbelt. The Court in Carnation v. Wong, reasoned that while not wearing a seatbelt may exacerbate a Plaintiff’s injuries it would not be a cause of the accident. They concluded that only evidence of the negligent actions of the Plaintiff that caused the occurrence would be admissible.
At the time of this decision, seat belt use was just beginning to become commonplace. Texas did not make it illegal for an adult to not wear a seatbelt in the front seat until 1985. The Court (and the Texas legislature) concluded that there was no duty to others to wear a seatbelt and that injuries resulting from the failure to use a seat belt were unforeseeable.
Over the course of the next forty years, there were dramatic changes in Texas tort law, culminating in the reforms passed in 2003 in House Bill 4. Texas incrementally went from a contributory negligence state to a comparative negligence state. The harsh outcomes under the old scheme were swept away. However, many of the judicially created protections were not abolished with tort reform, among them the rule prohibiting evidence of non-use of a seat belt. At the same time, seat belt use has become ubiquitous and proven to save lives. There is now no doubt that every driver has a duty to ensure that their vehicle’s seat belts are being utilized to prevent injuries to themselves and their passengers, particularly when those passengers are minor children.
The Texas Supreme Court, in finally removing these judicial anachronisms has brought Texas’ common law a much needed dose of common sense. The focus has now shifted from accident causing negligence to injury causing negligence. Texas juries will now be able to hear all the relevant evidence in order to apportion responsibility among the parties that caused the injury, including those actions of Plaintiffs that caused or exacerbated their own injuries. This is a welcome step in creating a more just environment for litigants in the State of Texas.