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What Is the 'Seat Belt Defense?'

One driver hits another and is clearly at fault. Normally, we'd think of that as the end of the story and would expect that the driver's insurance would pay for the injuries of the person who was hit. However, there are a limited number of defenses the driver or their insurer could raise that would relieve them of responsibility for the accident. One such defense is referred to as the "seat belt defense." The following article explains this defense and provides information about where and in which circumstances it may be available.

Seat Belt Defense Theory

The seat belt defense itself is relatively simple. In an accident where the person hit was supposed to be wearing a seatbelt, but wasn't, the responsible party uses the seat belt defense to reduce their liability by the amount of damages that would have been avoided if the person had been wearing their seat belt.

The seat belt defense arises as the result of car accidents' connection to torts law. Torts are legal claims that arise when someone's injury occurred as the result of another person or entity's negligence or malfeasance. There are two torts theories that are generally associated with the seat belt defense:

  • Comparative Negligence - The seat belt defense arises in states that employ the comparative negligence theory. Under this theory, the liabilities of both parties involved in an accident are compared. Comparative negligence states ascribe to either "modified" or "pure" rules for recovery. In states that use the modified comparative negligence theory, the plaintiff may not recover any damages if they were more than 50 percent responsible. In states that use the "pure" comparative negligence theory, the plaintiff's award is reduced by the degree to which they were responsible for their injuries.
  • Failure to Mitigate Damages - States may also reduce damages awards when the injured party fails to take reasonable actions to limit the extent of their injury. Failure to mitigate damages usually refers to the injured party's actions after the accident, but some states interpret the driver's failure to wear a seatbelt as a failure to mitigate damage that can occur before the incident.

Either theory can result in the reduction of damages.

Seat Belt Defense Jurisdictions

There are a limited number of jurisdictions that permit the seat belt defense. They include:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Hawaii, North Dakota, Indiana, Mississippi, and Nevada haven't clearly established themselves either for or against the seat belt defense.

The rest of the states do not permit the seat belt defense: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., and Wyoming.

It should also be noted that some jurisdictions limit the potential reduction in damages. Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, and Wisconsin are examples of jurisdictions that limit the use of the defense.

Get a Free Initial Claim Assessment

The seat belt defense is just one of a bewildering array of claims and defenses that may come into play in the litigation following a car accident. A lawyer's assistance can be very useful determining the strength of a particular claim or defense and can help you avoid getting bullied by insurers' legal counsel. Contact a local attorney for a free initial claim assessment to learn how they can help.

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