February 19, 2015
By John Council, Texas Lawyer

For more than 40 years, a Texas Supreme Court rule held that a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt is inadmissible in car accident cases. The reasoning was that seat belts don’t cause accidents and shouldn’t affect a plaintiff’s recovery in a case. But times change.

The Texas high court has now done away with the seat belt rule in a recent decision that could affect some of the most common civil disputes filed in Texas state and county courts.

“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,” explained Justice Jeff Brown in the court’s Jan. 13 decision in Nabors Well Services v. Romero.

Brown continued to explain that the Texas Legislature statutorily prohibited evidence of use or nonuse of seat belts in all cases in 1985, but repealed that law in 2003. Lawmakers also 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, Brown wrote.

And, unlike 1974, seat belts are now required by law and have become “an unquestioned part of daily life” for the vast majority of drivers, Brown wrote.
“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,” Brown wrote. “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.”

The decision reverses a $2.3 million jury verdict won by the Romero family after one family member was killed and seven other passengers were injured after the vehicle they were traveling in was struck by a well services truck.

Kim Hoover, communications manager for Nabors Well Services, said the company is happy with the decision.

“We are very pleased by today’s unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court of Texas regarding the admissibility of seat belt evidence in civil lawsuits,” Hoover said. “While the tragic accident involving one of our transport trucks was very unfortunate, we believe the severity of injuries could have been significantly reduced if all passengers involved had been properly restrained.”

Peter Kelly, a partner in Kelly, Durham & Pittard who represents the plaintiffs, did not return a call for comment.

Judge Martin Hoffman, who presides over Dallas’ 68th District Court, expects the ruling will be felt the strongest in product liability cases involving vehicles.

“It could have a profound effect on product liability cases. In a lot of the cases, there is something defective about the car where people are ejected from cars,” Hoffman said.

But Hoffman doesn’t expect the ruling will have a big impact on garden-variety car wreck cases involving soft tissue injuries and small damage awards.

“In well over 100 car wreck cases I’ve tried, in less than three or four those have the use of seat belts come up,” Hoffman said. “I think it will have an incremental effect at best on small cases and might have an effect on the bigger cases.”

David Bright, a veteran Corpus Christi plaintiffs vehicle product liability lawyer, said the decision is “a victory for insurance companies and trucking companies who are sued by people in motor vehicle wrecks.”

While such evidence is already allowed in “crash worthiness” cases filed against car manufacturers, Bright said the decision will now allow seat belt evidence in product liability claims involving the malfunctioning of a vehicle.

“Will it change something like an unintended acceleration case? Now we’re injecting something into the case that has nothing to do with why the car malfunctioned,” Bright said.

“This ruling might allow in evidence that might quite possible bias the jury against the plaintiff,” he said.

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