Texas Supreme Court Holds Evidence of Seat-Belt Non-Use Admissible to Show Plaintiff’s Comparative Fault

Texas Supreme Court Holds Evidence of Seat-Belt Non-Use Admissible to Show Plaintiff’s Comparative Fault

By David Helmey from The Fuentes Firm published on March 13, 2015.

“We hold relevant evidence of use or nonuse of seat belts, and relevant evidence of a plaintiff’s pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct generally, is admissible for the purpose of apportioning responsibility under our proportionate-responsibility statute, provided that the plaintiff’s conduct caused or was a cause of his damages.”

Nabors Well Servs. v. Romero, 2015 Tex. LEXIS 142, 34 (Tex. February 13, 2015)

In its 1974 opinion in Carnation v. Wong, the Texas Supreme Court held that evidence of failure to use a seat-belt was not admissible to reduce the damages of plaintiffs whose negligence did not contribute to the underlying accident. In 1985, the Texas Legislature enacted a provision stating that “[u]se or nonuse of a safety belt is not admissible in a civil trial.” This law, being much broader than the Court’s holding, became the final word on the admissibility of evidence of seat-belt use in Texas.

This remained the rule until 2003 when that provision was repealed. Since 2003, the Texas intermediate courts of appeals have struggled with the effect of this repeal in light of the Supreme Court’s prior ruling. Some held that Carnation still prohibited evidence of seat-belt use to show a plaintiff’s negligence; others simply noted that Texas law on the issue was “unsettled.” None were able to conclude that the repeal was conclusive of the legislature’s intent to permit evidence of seat-belt use. Without a definitive statement from the legislature or the Supreme Court, the lower courts were unable to agree on whether this evidence could be admissible.

On February 13, 2015, the Texas Supreme Court settled the issue. Based on changes in Texas’ proportionate responsibility regime and shifting attitudes towards seat-belt use between 1985 and 2003, the Court held that a blanket prohibition on the admission of seat-belt is inconsistent with Texas law. With this ruling, Texas law is effectively changed to permit evidence that a plaintiff was not wearing their seat-belt to show their proportionate responsibility for their own injuries, and to potentially reduce any judgment accordingly.