Admissibility of Non-Use of a Seat Belt in Texas Car Accident Cases

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The Texas Supreme Court has granted a review of a case concerning the admissibility of the non-use of seat belts in a trial of an auto accident case. The case involved an accident in which the driver and passengers were seriously injured a collision with a semi-truck. The driver and passengers were not wearing seat belts. The trial court rule that the plaintiffs' non-use of the seat belts was admissible in evidence. Not surprisingly, the injured plaintiffs lost the case when the jury found that the plaintiffs' negligence for not wearing safety belts overcame the negligence of the truck driver in causing the accident. On appeal, the El Paso Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's ruling and held that the Plaintiffs' non-use of a seat belt should not have been admitted into the trial. Further appeal was taken to the Texas Supreme Court, where the attorneys have just finished filing briefs. Given the history of the law in this area, Texas personal injury lawyers, both on the plaintiff's side and the defense, eagerly await the Court's decision.

In 1985, Texas passed a statute mandating the use of sea tbelts while operating or occupying an automobile. See Texas Transportation Code, Section 545.413. Prior to the passage of that statute, the common law in Texas was that the non-use of a seat belt is not admissible in a civil trial for personal injuries resulting from a car accident. The rational behind the common law was that the non-use of a seat belt is not relevant to the cause of the accident. In other words, a car accident is caused by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle and not by the non-use of seat belts.

When the seat belt statute was first passed, the Texas legislature tipped their hat to the common law rule. The statute actually had an express provision that stated the use or non-use of a seat belt was not admissible in a civil trial. But in 2003, with the passage of House Bill 4, that section was repealed from the statute. The Texas Supreme Court is now faced with deciding what legal effect did the repeal of that section have on the long-standing common law. Does the repeal of that section mean that the non-use seat belts is now admissible or does it mean that the issue is left for the Texas courts and common law to decide?

If the legislature intended for seat belt evidence to be admissible in a civil trial, then why did not it just equal the sentence to expressly provide that the non-use of a seat belt be admissible rather than just remain silent on the issue? It will also be interesting to see how the Court deals with the difference between negligence that contributes to the cause of the car accident and negligence that contributes to the cause of the injury . Texas common law has held that only evidence of negligence that causes or contributes to the accident is relevant and admissible. Will the Texas Supreme Court adhering to this long-established common law or will it open the door to evidence relating to the circumstances that may have contributed to the injury, but not to the accident? If the Court entertains the proposal of over-ruling established common law, it will create a difficult and demanding situation in which every personal injury caused by someone else's negligence will be scrutinized for conduct that had no causal effect on the accident.

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