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The Admissibility of the Failure to Wear a Seatbelt During A Motor Vehicle Collision

July 8th, 2015 by

In Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero, occupants of a vehicle sued an oil services company for negligence after a collision which killed one of the vehicle’s occupants and injured the other seven. Several of the occupants were ejected from the vehicle, and there was evidence that many were not wearing seatbelts. The trial court excluded all evidence of nonuse of seatbelts pursuant to the Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in Carnation Co. v. Wong, which held that a plaintiff’s nonuse of a seatbelt was inadmissible to show contributory negligence or failure to mitigate damages in a motor vehicle collision case.

In 1985, Carnation was subsumed when the legislature enacted a broad “outright prohibition” of seatbelt evidence in civil trials. The 1985 statute was repealed in 2003, but was not replaced with any language affirming the use of seatbelt evidence. The effect of the repeal and the legislature’s subsequent silence on the issue was to “revive[] this Court’s ruling in Carnation, a commonlaw rule subsumed for eighteen years by a broader statutory prohibition but never overruled.”

The question instead was whether the rule in Carnation, “established more than forty years ago, should still stand today” in light of legislative changes in “the assignment of responsibility in negligence lawsuits” with the enactment of Chapter 33. After considering the effect of Chapter 33 and the changing policy behind seatbelt use, the Court overruled Carnation and held that “relevant evidence of use or nonuse of seat belts is admissible for the purpose of apportioning responsibility in civil lawsuits.”

“[F]ailure to wear a seatbelt is one way in which a plaintiff can ‘cause[] or contribut[e] to cause in any way’ his own ‘personal injuries’ or ‘death.’” Thus, “for purposes of the proportionate-responsibility statute, the Legislature both intends and requires fact-finders to consider relevant evidence of a plaintiff’s preoccurrence, injury-causing conduct,” including evidence of seatbelt use or nonuse.

Nabors Well Services v. Romero, 456 S.W.3d 553 (Tex. 2015).