DLG Luce – Austin – Texas Supreme Court Rules Use of Seat Belt Factor Regarding Negligence

Last week, the Texas Supreme published a new decision that overturns more than 40 years of law prohibiting the use of seatbelt as a factor when considering negligence in a civil trial. In the new ruling, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the use of seatbelt can now be used as a factor when determining negligence. In support of the opinion, which was delivered by Justice Brown, the Texas Supreme Court noted the following:

For more than forty years evidence of a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt has been inadmissible in car-accident cases. That rule, which this Court first announced in 1974, offered plaintiffs safe harbor from the harshness of an all-or-nothing scheme that barred recovery for even the slightest contributory negligence. Moreover, the Court reasoned that although a plaintiff’s failure 
to use a seat belt may exacerbate his injuries, it cannot cause a car accident, and therefore should not affect a plaintiff’s recovery. 

In 1985 the Legislature jumped in to statutorily prohibit evidence of use or nonuse of seat belts in all civil cases. It repealed that law in 2003, leaving our rule to again stand alone. But much has changed in the past four decades. The Legislature has overhauled Texas’s system for apportioning fault in negligence cases—a plaintiff’s negligence can now be apportioned alongside a defendant’s without entirely barring the plaintiff’s recovery. And unlike in 1974, seat belts are now required by law and have become an unquestioned part of daily life for the vast majority of drivers and passengers. 

These changes have rendered our prohibition on seat-belt evidence an anachronism. The rule may have been appropriate in its time, but today it is a vestige of a bygone legal system and an oddity in light of modern societal norms. Today we overrule it and hold that relevant evidence of use or nonuse of seat belts is admissible for the purpose of apportioning responsibility in civil lawsuits. 

While it is, and always has been a good idea to wear your seatbelt anytime you are traveling in a vehicle, this should serve as further motivation to do so if you don’t already!