Today, the Supreme Court of Texas unanimously held that in cases involving auto accidents, evidence of whether a plaintiff was wearing a seat belt at the time of the incident was admissible to apportion fault. You can read the Court’s decision in No. 13-0136, Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero (Tex. Oct. 9, 2014, slip op.) here. The Court overruled Carnation Co. v. Wong, 516 S.W.2d 116 (Tex. 1974), which excluded all evidence of a plaintiff’s failure to use seat belts. I think the Court’s reasoning is sound enough in light of (a) the breadth of the Texas proportionate responsibility scheme under Civil Practice and Remedies Code Chapter 33 and (b) the lack of a clear legislative policy to keep out such evidence. Is it good public policy? That’s a different discussion entirely.
Obviously, in cases where the plaintiff did not wear a seat belt, the effects of the Romero decision will be significant. The case creates more opportunities for defendants to assign a big percentage of responsibility to plaintiffs. I can imagine many jurors will not award some plaintiffs a dime if he or she didn’t wear a seat belt. Defendants may now argue that a plaintiff who did not wear a seat belt in violation of Texas law was negligent per se. At the same time, I don’t think a person’s failure to wear a seat belt will necessarily wipe out all liability on the part of a defendant. Juries will still want to hold those drivers who cause accidents responsible, even if the plaintiff wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
The bottom line: evidence of a plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt is now admissible. The Romero decision makes cases involving a plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt much more risky.