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What is the “Seat Belt” Defense?

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” He might be right, but the rest of us do. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, in 2013 2.31 million people were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes. Among those fatally injured, nearly half were not wearing a seat belt. Clearly, seat belts save lives, but they also decrease the severity of non-fatal injuries. Yet, with over 60 years of combined experience helping thousands of  people injured in car crashes, we are constantly amazed by how many people still don’t wear a seat belt when driving in a car.

Not wearing a seat belt is not only hazardous to your health, but can also seriously impact the value of a subsequent personal injury case, even for those not at fault in the accident. Colorado has enacted legislation allowing the jury to reduce an injured party’s recovery in a personal injury case if the injured party was not wearing a seat belt. Commonly known as the” Seat Belt Defense,” evidence of seat belt non-use “shall be admissible to mitigate damages with respect to any person who was involved in a motor accident and who seeks in any subsequent litigation to recover damages for injuries resulting from the accident.” Colorado Revised Statutes section 42-4-237(7).

Generally, in personal injury cases the injured party is entitled to seek economic damages, non-economic damages, and damages for physical disfigurement and permanent impairment. Economic damages typically include things like medical expenses and loss of income, while non-economic damages include damages for impairment of quality of life, inconvenience, and pain and suffering. Originally, the seat belt law only mitigated a plaintiff’s “pain and suffering” damages, but Colorado courts have recently expanded the law to include all non-economic damages. Because non-economic damages can make up a sizable portion of a car accident victim’s total harms and losses, any reduction can drastically decrease a victim’s total recovery from the responsible driver’s automobile insurance company. Fortunately, non-economic damages for physical disfigurement and permanent impairment are not subject to reduction by the seat belt defense.

Although the failure to wear a seat belt does not prohibit a personal injury claim outright, in many states, it is evidence of a plaintiff’s comparative fault. Comparative fault means that the jury will consider whether the plaintiff was partially at fault for causing the accident and resulting injuries. In many states, if the plaintiff’s fault, or contributory negligence, is equal to or greater than that of the defendant, the plaintiff will not be allowed to recover anything from the person who caused the crash. In other words, if the jury assigns greater than 50% of fault to the plaintiff, the plaintiff will not recover anything. If the jury assigns less than 50%, the amount of the plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by the percentage of his or her fault. In Colorado, however, the failure to wear a seat belt is not a proper consideration in determining the degree of the injured victim’s comparative negligence. Rather, it is only relevant to determine whether the injured victim’s non-economic damages should be reduced. Logically, it makes sense. The failure to wear a seat belt did not contribute to the cause the accident, itself,  but it can be argued that the plaintiff’s injuries were more severe than they would have been had he or she been wearing a seat belt as required by law.

If a defendant whose negligence caused a car crash chooses to raise the seat belt defense, the defendant merely needs to prove the injured party was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. This is usually not a difficult standard to meet, because in most cases it is relatively clear whether or not the injured party was wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. Importantly, the defendant is not required to prove a causal relationship between the plaintiff’s non-use of a seat belt and non-economic damages. All the defendant has to do is prove the plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident, and then it is within the sole discretion of the jury to consider whether it believes that the injuries and the non-economic consequences could have been avoided or minimized had the victim worn a seat belt. If it believes so, the jury can choose to award the plaintiff nothing, i.e., zero dollars,  for non-economic damages. To counter the seat belt defense, the plaintiff may produce evidence that seat belt non-use did not cause the plaintiff’s injuries, or some injuries would have occurred regardless of that non-use.

The bottom line is that not wearing a seat belt will not only increase your risk of serious injury or death, but it also can potentially impact your compensation if you are injured in an accident caused by the negligence of another driver. If you were injured in a car crash in which any of the parties were not wearing their seat belts, you should contact an auto accident attorney as soon as possible to determine how best to approach your potential case.

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