TEXAS SUPREME COURT ENDS LONGSTANDING RULE PROHIBITING SEAT-BELT EVIDENCE IN AUTOMOBILE-COLLISION TRIALS
Since the Texas Supreme Court first spoke to the issue in 1974, evidence of a driver’s failure to use a seat belt has been inadmissible in Texas lawsuits involving car accidents. The Court reversed that rule this month with in an opinion that now allows evidence of a plaintiffs’ failure to use a seatbelt as evidence of a plaintiff’s comparative negligence.
Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero, No. 13-0136, 2015 WL 648858 (Tex. Feb. 13, 2015). arose from a collision between a Nabors Wells Services truck and a personal vehicle carrying eight occupants. Nabors tried to introduce expert testimony that five of the seven occupants were unbelted and ejected from the vehicle and wanted to argue that these occupants’ failure to use seat belts had caused their injuries. Nabors also attempted to introduce evidence of the driver’s previous citation for failing to properly restrain child passengers. Following Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in Carnation Co. v. Wong, 516 S.W.2d 116 (Tex. 1974), the trial court excluded this evidence, with the trial ending in a $2.3 million verdict for the plaintiffs.
In revisiting its previous ruling in Carnation, the Court observed that Carnation was decided at a time when there was no law requiring seat-belt use and when the contributory-negligence rule in Texas entirely barred plaintiffs from recovery if they were negligent in any way. In contrast, all passengers today are required to buckle up, and drivers must ensure that persons seventeen or younger are also secured. Most important to the Court’s analysis, however, was the comparative-negligence regime now in place in Texas, which requires a jury to allocate damages based on the fault of the respective parties. The Court held that because plaintiffs no longer suffered the risk that their claims would be completely barred for omissions such as seatbelt misuse, this evidence should now be admissible (if relevant) to prevent plaintiffs from gaining a windfall from their negligent conduct.