Plaintiffs who file automobile collision lawsuits in Texas can now be painted with contributory negligence assertions if the evidence shows they were not wearing their seat belts at the time of the wreck.
On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion overturning its 1974 ruling, which for more than 40 years offered “plaintiffs safe harbor from the harshness of an all-or-nothing scheme that barred recovery for even the slightest contributory negligence.”
The previous ruling found that although a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt may exacerbate his or hers injuries, it cannot cause a collision, and therefore should not affect a plaintiff’s recovery.
However, today’s high court justices concluded much has changed in the past four decades.
“The Legislature has overhauled Texas’s system for apportioning fault in negligence cases—a plaintiff’s negligence can now be apportioned alongside a defendant’s without entirely barring the plaintiff’s recovery,” states the court’s opinion, authored by Justice Jeffrey Brown.
“And unlike in 1974, seat belts are now required by law and have become an unquestioned part of daily life for the vast majority of drivers and passengers. These changes have rendered our prohibition on seat-belt evidence an anachronism. The rule may have been appropriate in its time, but today it is a vestige of a bygone legal system and an oddity in light of modern societal norms.
“Today we overrule it and hold that relevant evidence of use or nonuse of seat belts is admissible for the purpose of apportioning responsibility in civil lawsuits.”
Court records show the opinion stems from an automobile collision suit filed against Nabors Well Services.
A Chevrolet Suburban with eight occupants attempted to pass a Nabors’ transport truck slowing to make a left turn on U.S. Highway 285 in rural West Texas. As the SUV’s driver, Martin Soto, crossed into the opposing traffic lane, the transport truck clipped the vehicle, causing it veer of the highway and roll multiple times.
Aydee Romero, an adult passenger, was killed.
The opinion states there is conflicting evidence as to which occupants were belted and which were ejected from the Suburban. A responding state trooper wrote in his report that all but two occupants were unrestrained.
During the civil trial of Soto and Romero et al vs. Nabors et al, Nabors sought to offer expert testimony from a biomechanical engineer who contended that seven of the eight Suburban occupants were unbelted, that five of those seven were ejected from the vehicle, and that the failure to use seat belts caused the passengers’ injuries and the one fatality, the opinion states.
However, the trial court excluded all evidence of nonuse of seat bets, in accordance with the previous 1974 ruling. A jury found Nabors 51 percent responsible for causing the collision, awarding the Soto and Romero families more than $2.3 million in total damages.
The Texas 8th Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling, prompting Nabors to file a petition for review with the high court on March 25, 2013, court records show.
“From the rural Texan who braves harrowing two-lane highways to the urban commuter who plans his route to avoid daily accident-related congestion, the dangers of driving are ubiquitous,” the opinion states.
“So when it comes to foreseeing the general hazard of automobile travel, ‘there is nothing to anticipate; the negligence of other motorists is omnipresent.’ Indeed, by enacting seat-belt laws, the Legislature has required motorists to anticipate the negligence of others.”
Court records further show the Texas Trial Lawyers Association filed an amicus brief in the case on Oct. 27, arguing the 2003 legislature made the admissibility of seat belt use a matter for the trial court’s discretion.
Justices reversed the appellate court’s ruling and remanded it back for further proceedings consistent with the current opinion.
Nabors is represented in part by Houston attorney Roger Townsend, along with Bruce Williams and David Lauritzen, attorneys for the Midland law firm Cotton, Bledsoe, Tighe & Dawson.
Case No. 13-0136