Last Wednesday, the Court of Appeals of Texas decided Nabors Wells Services, Ltd. v. Asuncion Romero. Nabors appealed a jury verdict awarding $2.3 million to Plaintiffs, who were involved in an automobile crash. I’m writing about this case to discuss the difference between the Maryland law and Texas law with respect to the impact of failing to wear your seat belt on your Maryland car accident claims. The question is whether or not wearing a seat belt can be used against you at trial. In Maryland, the answer is no.
Let’s talk about this case. Plaintiffs were driving a Chevrolet Suburban down the highway one late afternoon and were hit by an employee of Defendant driving a tractor trailer. The Suburban swerved off the highway into a scrub bush, causing it rollover multiple times. Out of the eight passengers in the vehicle, seven sustained injuries and the last died. It was unclear who was wearing seat belts at the time of the crash, and the testimony was inconsistent. Plaintiffs then brought suit.
At trial, Defendant tried to introduce expert testimony about the effects of seat belt use in auto accidents, but Plaintiffs objected and the court sustained the objections under former Texas law, which said that all evidence relating to seat belt use or non-use is inadmissible. Defendant now contends in the appeal that the trial court made a mistake by excluding the expert testimony, because current Texas law no longer prohibits the exclusion. Plaintiff argued that the exclusion has roots in common law, and therefore seat belt evidence should still be inadmissible.
Prior to its repeal in 2003, Texas Transportation Code Section 545.413 barred the admission of evidence relating to seat belt usage. Even before the enactment of these provisions, however, Texas common law stated that evidence of seat belt non-use could not establish contributory negligence, but rather only affected damages. In other words, driving without a seat belt does not make you negligent for the accident, but it could affect the amount of compensation you get. The Texas Supreme Court later went on to decide that there was no way to tell if wearing a seat belt actually mitigates damage, so plaintiffs should get the full award anyways. Essentially, even if you did not wear a seat belt in Texas, you could still be awarded the entire amount in damages. Supporting the supreme court’s decision, Texas then passed the law prohibiting seat belt-related evidence, and made it a crime to not use a seat belt.
In this case, the court explained that precedent binds the court. Because the legislature remained silent after repealing the provision, Texas Supreme Court precedent is the authority. As a result, the court found no error in excluding the evidence and affirmed the judgment for Plaintiffs.
Now let’s circle back to Maryland law. Maryland Transportation Code Section 22-412.3 states that failure to wear a seat belt is not contributory negligence and may not be admitted as evidence in a civil trial – the same as what former Texas law mandated. But in Maryland, defense lawyers cannot use the failure to wear a seat belt at trial on the issue of negligence or damages.
So if you were in a serious accident and were not wearing your seat belt, you don’t have to worry that this will get thrown in your face at trial. That said, and I hate to get preachy, please use your seat belt in the future.