This case illustrates the importance of wearing seatbelts while in a motor vehicle. On July 23, 2015, Plano police reported that a 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe erupted in flames after violently crashing into a traffic signal pole at the intersection of Preston Road at Tennyson Parkway in Plano, Texas in this single car accident. Plano is located in North Dallas County. Alger Ben Baker, the driver of the vehicle, died at the scene but his passenger Daniel Payton Mushock was rescued from the vehicle before it erupted into flames. Yoel Gebremicael was driving behind the Mr. Baker vehicle when he witnessed the accident. He was able to rescue Mr. Mushock from the vehicle at the scene. Plano police stated that neither the driver nor the passenger were wearing seatbelts. However the good Samaritan, Yoel Gebremicael disagreed . Yoel Gebremicael stated that he had to unbuckle Mr. Mushock while trying to rescue him from the burning vehicle.
As a passenger in the vehicle, Mr. Mushock may have a claim against the driver, Mr. Baker, if the facts show that Mr. Baker’s negligence caused the accident . However, Mr. Baker’s insurance company may try to show that Mr. Mushock’s injuries were caused or aggravated by Mr. Mushock not having a seatbelt on at the time of the impact. Mr Baker’s insurance company may refuse to pay any money to the passenger, Mr Mushock, based on the allegation of non-use of a seatbelt even if Mr Baker was completely at fault for causing the accident. This was not always the law.
Texas has had a twisted history regarding whether judges should admit the non-use of a seatbelt. Before 1974, if a person failed to wear a seatbelt at the time of the accident this was considered admissible in evidence. At this time, if the injured victim was liable for any negligence, he would be barred from receiving any money from the lawsuit. This was considered a harsh result so in 1974, Texas courts ruled that non-use of a seatbelt was inadmissible in evidence. In 1985, the Texas Legislature codified the prohibition on the admissibility of the non-use of seatbelt evidence but then they repealed this law in 2003.
In February 2015, the Texas Supreme Court clarified the seatbelt admissibility and proportionate responsibility law in their decision , Nabors Well Services Ltd. v. Asuncion Romero. To realize the importance of this case and how it affects an injured victim one must understand how proportionate responsibility works in Texas.
Proportionate responsibility law allows a negligent party (usually represented by an insurance company that processes and pays the claim), to reduce what they will voluntarily pay regarding the injured victim’s damages by the percentage of negligence allegedly committed by the injured party. The insurance company may reduce what they will voluntarily pay regarding the injured victims damages (medical bills, lost wages, pain-and-suffering etc.) by the percentage of responsibility of the injured victim. For example, if the negligent driver failed to yield right-of-way at an intersection but the injured victim was speeding at the time of the impact, a jury may consider the injured victim’s role in causing the accident. In this example, if a jury were to find the negligent driver 70% at fault for failing to yield right-of-way at an intersection collision, but also find that the injured victim was 30% at fault for speeding and this same jury awarded the injured victim $10,000.00 total damages (medical bills, lost wages, pain-and-suffering etc.), a judge would reduce the award by 30% (the percentage of negligence committed by the injured victim) . In this example, the injured victim will not receive $10,000.00 but instead receive $7,000.00. This is a sliding scale. Texas law also mandates that if the jury finds that the injured victim is 51% at fault or more for causing an accident, the injured victim is prohibited from receiving any compensation. In the above stated example, the jury will not know that by finding the injured victim 51% negligent and the negligent party 49% negligent, that the injured victim will receive none of the $10,000.00 award.
Now with the Nabors decision, a judge can allow the admissibility of non-use of seatbelts to allow a jury to consider whether the injured victim’s failure to wear the seatbelt caused or aggravated the injured victim’s injuries. So an injured victim who was a negligent free passenger in a car accident may be barred from receiving any recovery from the negligent driver if the passenger did not have his seatbelt on at the time of the collision. If a jury finds that the negligent free passenger’s failure to wear a seatbelt was 51% of the cause of the injured victim’s injuries then he will be barred from all recovery. Essentially the Nabor’s decision mandates that there is no distinction between negligence based on conduct (failure to yield right of way) and negligence that causes injury (non-use of seatbelt). It is the opinion of this writer however that the negligent party will probably need medical expert testimony to separate the injuries caused by the motor vehicle collision and the separate injuries that were caused or aggravated by the non-use of seatbelts since this question is outside the knowledge of a lay person juror.
More importantly, in a typical every day case in Texas, an insurance adjuster will try to use the injured victims failure to use seatbelts to reduce the value of the claim in pre-litigation without any medical testimony to guide the adjuster.
A thorough investigation by the lawyer is crucial to protect the rights and remedies of the injured victim in complicated cases involving the non-use of seatbelts in a motor vehicle accident.