A recent Texas Supreme Court ruling overturning a four-decade old law making evidence of not wearing a seat belt inadmissible in auto collision suits adds another hurdle for injured plaintiffs, says one local veteran trial lawyer.
On Feb. 13, the high court squashed the previous 1974 ruling, which offered “plaintiffs safe harbor from the harshness of an all-or-nothing scheme that barred recovery for even the slightest contributory negligence,” the court’s opinion read.
“I disagree with the ruling … but I feel like that ruling was inevitable, given our current political climate,” said Clay Dugas, founder of the Clay Dugas and Associates law firm in Beaumont. “Causation negligence is predicated on who set the ball in motion, not whether or not someone has a seat belt on.”
Dugas, who has been practicing law for the past 30 years, says the ruling adds another hurdle for injured plaintiffs to address in trial, potentially requiring them to hire additional pricy experts, such as biomechanical engineers.
“In the long run, it will make cases more costly and time consuming,” said Dugas. “Jurors are smart. They know whether or not someone had their seat belt on.”
With the new ruling in place, the percentage of contributory negligence jurors assign to plaintiffs for not wearing their seat belt will now cut into their total award – an outcome that will hurt legitimately injured victims more than the trial lawyers representing them, says Dugas.
“I think we (plaintiff’s attorneys) are very resilient to change,” Dugas added. “However, (the ruling) does affect the net to the client.”
On the other side of the spectrum, some tort reform groups believe the high court’s decision to be a step forward in comparison to the old ruling, which formerly held a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt may exacerbate his or hers injuries, but it cannot cause a collision, and therefore should not affect a plaintiff’s recovery.
“The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court is consistent with the law, good public policy and common sense,” said Sherry Sylvester, spokesperson for Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
Only the years to follow will determine the overall impact of the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling.