July 26, 2017 Auto Accidents

Hand fastening seat belt in the carCar accidents where one driver hits another can seem like open-and-shut cases. Clearly the insurer of the vehicle that plowed into you should pay for the full extent of your damages, right? Many times, that is exactly what happens. There is, however, one caveat allowed in California – if you were not wearing your seat belt.

Is it illegal to ride in a moving vehicle without wearing a seat belt in California?

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act makes it pretty clear that everyone is expected to buckle up in California. Technically, a California police officer may issue a ticket for “failure to wear a seat belt” except for cases where:

  • You are a passenger in the backseat of a limousine or taxicab.
  • You are a minor under 16 years of age, where the responsibility of your buckling falls to an adult present.

Fines range from $20 to $100 for a first offense. Drivers may be expected to attend driver safety courses. Regardless of the legality of riding in a vehicle without a safety belt on, plaintiffs may find that the amount of compensation they are entitled to is substantially reduced because they were not belted at the time of the collision.

What is the seat belt defense?

Defense counsels may argue that the amount of damages could have been substantially reduced had the victims been wearing their seat belts. State courts may choose to reduce damage awards when the injured party fails to “take reasonable actions to limit the extent of injury” – which means wearing a seat belt while riding in a motor vehicle.

The State of California allows for Comparative Negligence, which means the liability of the defendant can be reduced if the plaintiff was at least partially liable for what happened. California allows for “pure” rules of recovery, which means plaintiffs whose decisions and actions contributed to their own injuries can still collect reduced compensation, even if they were deemed 99% at fault. States with “modified” comparative negligence do not allow the awarding of compensation to plaintiffs determined to be more than 50% at fault.

Which states do not permit the seat belt defense?

While California plaintiffs are subject to reduced damages based on the seat belt defense, plaintiffs in the following states and districts are not beholden to this law:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Washington D.C.
  • Wyoming

Some states allow for the seat belt defense, but limit the reduction in damages. For instance, Missouri only allows for a 1% reduction in damages if the plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. Similarly, Iowa, Michigan, and Oregon reduce damages by a mere 5%, and Wisconsin allows for reductions of 15%.

Arguments against the seat belt defense

Skilled Los Angeles car accident attorneys at the Salamati Firm are prepared to fight for maximum compensation for your injuries, whether you were wearing a belt at the time or not. Depending on your situation, arguments that may counter the Seat Belt Defense include:

  • Failure to wear a seat belt did not cause the accident itself in any way, so the “comparative negligence” rule does not apply.
  • Traditional mitigation of damages applies to what a plaintiff does after the accident occurs. Since fastening a seat belt after the fact would do nothing to mitigate damages, the plaintiff cannot logically be held liable for failure to mitigate damages in the traditional sense.
  • Plaintiffs should not have to anticipate the negligence of others.
  • The amount of damages a plaintiff may have sustained had he or she been wearing a belt cannot be precisely assessed. The calculation is just a guess at best, even with the help of experts.
  • Numerous other legislatures have deemed the seat belt defense an intrusion into individual freedom.
  • The seat belt was worn, but broke or failed to protect the plaintiff because it was defective or malfunctioning.
  • Seat belt tests using test dummies cannot accurately be compared to the plaintiff’s size, weight, and stature.
  • The other side has no proof that a seat belt was not worn by the plaintiff.

If you or a loved one were involved in a car accident where seat belts were not worn, contact The Salamati Firm. Since 2005, our experienced team of personal injury lawyers have taken on some of the most complex court cases – and won! Contact us for a free consultation and pay no legal fees unless we take on your case and secure just compensation on your behalf.

Additional “Seat Belt Defense” Resources:

  1. California Driving University, CA Seat Belt Laws, http://california.drivinguniversity.com/driving-safety/california-seat-belt-law
  2. Tulsa Law Review, The Seatbelt Defense: A Doctrine Based in Common Sense, http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2407&context=tlr

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