In 2015, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in Nabors Well Services v. Romero that the non-use of seat belts is admissible in an auto accident case.
The History of the Case
The case involved an accident in which a Suburban collided with a semi-truck. There was one fatality and others sustaining serious injuries. No one in the Suburban were wearing seat belts.
The trial court ruled that the plaintiffs’ non-use of the seat belts was admissible in evidence. Not surprisingly, the injured plaintiffs lost the case.
On appeal, the El Paso Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling. The Court held that the Plaintiffs’ non-use of a seat belt should not have been admitted into the trial. Further appeal was taken to the Texas Supreme Court.
After a long awaited decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial Court was correct in allowing evidence of the Plaintiffs’ non-use of seat belts.
The Common Law
For the last 40 years, it has been the law in Texas that non-use of a seat belt was not admissible in a car accident case. The reasoning was that the use or non-use of a seat belt did not cause or contribute the accident. Therefore, the focus remained on the operation of the vehicle as the grounds for recovery for injuries.
The Seat Belt Statute
Then, in 1985, Texas passed a statute mandating the use of seat belts. See Texas Transportation Code, Section 545.413. When the seat belt statute was first passed, the Texas legislature followed the common law rule. The statute actually had an express provision that stated the use or non-use of a seat belt was not admissible in a civil trial.
But in 2003, with the passage of House Bill 4, that section was repealed from the statute. The Texas Supreme Court was faced with deciding what legal effect did the repeal of that section have on the long-standing common law. Does the repeal of that section mean that the non-use seat belts is now admissible? Or, do we just revert back to the common law rule?
It will be interesting to see how trial courts in Dallas and other major cities in Texas, deal with this recent change in the law. What if the Plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt, but there is no evidence that a seat belt would have made any difference.
Texas common law has held that only evidence of negligence that causes or contributes to the accident is relevant and admissible. For 40 years, the Texas Supreme Court adhered to this long-established common law. Its decision in the Nabors Well Services case changed all that. Now, evidence of negligence that contributes to the injury is admissible. This includes seat belts.
If the legislature intended for seat belt evidence to be admissible in a civil trial, then why did it not just amend the statute to expressly provide so? Why would the legislature repeal the provision and remain silent on the issue?
The fear in the legal community is what trial courts will do. What if a seat belt would have made no difference? Does the evidence come in anyway? If so, this could create a difficultly. Now, every person injured may be unduly scrutinized for conduct that had no causal effect on the accident.