In This Issue: Evidence of Use or Nonuse of Seat Belts Now Admissible
In February 2015, the Texas Supreme Court handed down a decision in Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero holding that relevant evidence of use or nonuse of seatbelts is admissible for the purpose of apportioning responsibility under the proportionate responsibility statute. 2015 WL 648858, 58 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 347. With the decision, the Court overruled Kerby v. Abilene Christian College and Carnation v. Wong, two Supreme Court cases from the 1970’s that did not permit the introduction of evidence of a plaintiff’s seat-belt use.
The Nabors case involved a collision in West Texas between a Nabors Well Services truck and a Chevrolet Suburban with eight occupants including three adults and five children. Both vehicles were traveling on a two-lane highway when the truck slowed to make a left turn. The Suburban’s driver, Martin Soto, pulled into the opposing traffic lane and attempted to pass the transport truck. As Soto passed, the truck started its turn and clipped the Suburban, which went off the highway and rolled multiple times. One of the adult passengers was killed in the accident. All the survivors from the Suburban suffered injuries, but there was conflicting evidence as to which passengers were belted and which were ejected. One state trooper who responded reported that only two occupants were restrained. An EMS report stated that a family member reported that seven of the eight occupants were ejected.
At trial, the Defendant attempted to offer expert testimony from a biomechanical engineer that the failure to use seat belts caused the passengers’ injuries and the fatality, but the court excluded this evidence. The jury found Nabors 51% and Soto 49% responsible for the accident and awarded the families over $2.3 million. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment based solely on the Carna-tion prohibition on seat-belt evidence. The Supreme Court decided to grant review to consider the viability of Carnation in light of the Texas Legislature’s repeal of its statutory ban on seat-belt evidence.
The first cases in Texas about the admissibility of seat-belt evidence appeared in the 1960’s. At that time, there was no Texas law requiring seat-belt use. The federal law requiring the installation of “lap or lap and shoulder seat belt assemblies for each designated seating position” in passenger vehicles did not go into effect until January 1, 1968. See Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301, Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208 - Occupant Crash Protection Passenger Cars. Additionally, Texas courts operated under an all-or-nothing rule in negligence cases that entirely barred a plaintiff from recovery if the plaintiff him-self was negligent in any way. Parrott v. Garcia, 436 S.W.2d 897, 901 (Tex. 1969).
However, in 1985 Texas made it a criminal offense for anyone under fifteen years old to ride in a front seat unbelted, and, along with that law, the Texas Legislature provided that the use or nonuse of a seat belt was not admissible as evidence in a civil trial. In 2003, the Legislature removed the prohibition of seat-belt evidence in civil trials. Also, now Texas has a proportionate responsibility system for the fact-finder to apportion responsibility and thereby reduce a plaintiff’s recovery by the percentage he or she was at fault. Accordingly, the Court felt that the conclusion was unavoidable that failure to use a seat belt is one way in which a plaintiff can “cause or contribut[e] to cause in any way” his own “personal injuries” or “death.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§33.003(a), 33.011 (4).
The Court cited safety statistics and explained that seat belts are now required and have become an unquestioned part of daily life for the vast majority of drivers and passengers. The Court noted that evidence of seat-belt use is admissible only if it is relevant, but failed to explain whether expert testimony will be required in all cases. Tex. R. Evid. 401, 402. The Court felt confident that the rules of evidence included everything necessary to handle the admissibility of seat-belt evidence.