Where a driver raises the so-called “seat belt defense,” it unleashes a whole series of questions for the jury to answer. Initially, a jury must make two separate decisions about fault. The first one concerns the cause of the accident. The second is as to the cause of any enhanced or increased injuries which occurred by not using a seat belt.On the first question, a defendant’s contention that a plaintiff ( the person who sues) was not wearing a seat belt is not relevant in deciding who is at fault for causing the accident in the first place. It may, however, be meaningful in determining the amount of money the plaintiff may recover for any injuries he/she sustained.
In order to succeed on this reduction of damages issue, the defendant must prove by the greater weight of the evidence that:
1. Plaintiff was not using an available seat belt at the time of the accident.
2. Plaintiff was negligent in not using that seat belt at the time of the accident.
3. Plaintiff’s injuries were made greater or more severe because he/she was not using a seat belt.
In other words, the defendant must prove that some or all of plaintiff’s injuries could have been prevented or avoided if he/she had been using a seat belt. Normally, this will require expert testimony.
It is important to note that a violation of the New Jersey seat belt law is not conclusive as to the issue of whether plaintiff was negligent. Rather, it is merely one factor or circumstance which the jury is to consider in assessing the negligence, if any, of the plaintiff.
If the jury finds that a plaintiff was negligent in not using a seat belt and that his or her injuries were made greater by this, it must then make two more decisions
The first is to decide what part of plaintiff’s injuries would have been avoided if a seat belt had been used. The defendant has the burden of proving this. In deciding this, the jury must first determine the value of the total damages which plaintiff incurred.
Then, the jury must set the amount of the damages that would have been sustained in the accident if a seat belt had been used. The jury then subtracts that amount from the total damages actually sustained in order to obtain the so-called “seat belt damages.”
In cases where a plaintiff was severely injured, and his or her severe injuries could not have been avoided by the use of a seat belt, it is immaterial that some minor injuries could have been avoided by seat belt use. Therefore, if the negligent failure to wear a seat belt had no impact on the extent of the injury, the jury should cease to consider the seat belt issue. Put otherwise, it is only where the negligent failure to wear a seat belt increased the extent or severity of injuries, that a jury must then evaluate the impact of the failure to wear a seat belt.
So, in sum, in seat belt defense cases, the jury and the court would apply the following equation:
(1) The jury determines total damages as if there were no seat belt issue at all.
(2) Next, the jury determines the comparative fault of each party in causing the accident and expresses those determinations in terms of a percentage.
(3) Next, the jury determines whether plaintiff’s non-use of a seat belt increased the extent or severity of plaintiff’s injuries and whether plaintiff’s non-use of a seat belt constituted negligence.
(4) Next, the jury determines plaintiff’s “seat belt damages.”
(5) Next, the jury determines the percentage of plaintiff’s comparative fault for the seat belt damages. The court should inform the jury that plaintiff’s fault for failure to wear a seat belt will be added to plaintiff’s fault, if any, in causing the accident to reduce further plaintiff’s award in an amount proportionate also to defendant’s relative fault in causing the accident.
(6) Finally, the court determines plaintiff’s recovery by molding the jury’s damages and negligence findings.
Got it? I think there is only one, easy lesson here: Wear a seat belt. If you do not and you are injured, you can expect the insurance company for the other side to hire an expert to say that it was your fault that your injuries were as bad as they were. Also, you can tell from the above that a jury can easily be confused by all of this and that could work to your detriment.
Video Source: https://www.iihs.org/iihs/news/desktopnews/adults-admit-to-not-always-using-safety-belts-in-the-back-seat-iihs-survey-finds