Choosing to wear a seat belt is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from serious injury in an automobile collision. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 37,461 people killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2016, 48 percent were not wearing seatbelts. The Administration estimates that in 2016 alone seat belts saved 14,668 lives.
Still, for a variety of reasons, some people choose not to wear seatbelts and can face serious injury when they are involved in a collision through no fault of their own. In such cases, we are often asked by our clients whether the failure to use a seatbelt has an impact on their personal injury case against the negligent driver.
In Virginia, any driver of an automobile, and any adult occupying the front seat of an automobile is required to wear a seat belt while the vehicle is in motion on a public highway. The same statute, however, specifically provides that violation of this rule is not admissible in evidence in civil actions for damages. In short, this means that in your personal case, the defense attorney cannot discuss in front of the jury whether or not you were wearing your seatbelt during the collision at issue.
Liability and Damages
The Virginia statute and case law interpreting it confirms that the rule excluding seat belt use from evidence in civil cases applies to the issues of both liability and damages.
In a personal injury case, a defendant driver is liable for the plaintiff’s injuries so long as the plaintiff can prove that the defendant was negligent in operating her motor vehicle and that negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The negligent defendant, however, can avoid liability if she can prove that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent. The law makes clear that the failure to wear her seat belt cannot be used against the plaintiff as evidence of contributory negligence.
Similarly, the plaintiff in a personal injury case must prove the full extent of her injuries and damages caused by the collision. The defendant is entitled to introduce evidence that the plaintiff failed to mitigate or lessen the extent or severity of, her damages. Once again, however, the defendant is prohibited from arguing that the plaintiff’s damages would have been less severe had she been wearing her seatbelt at the time of the crash.
This rule makes sense for several reasons. First, even if the plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt, the collision and resulting injuries still never would have occurred but for the negligence of the defendant driver. Second, one of the policies behind tort law is to defer individuals from driving negligently, and placing responsibility on the defendant for the full measure of the plaintiff’s damages helps promote that goal.
When you have been injured by a negligent driver it is important to have an experienced advocate on your side who knows what evidence can and cannot be used against you. In such situations, our attorneys are here to help.
And don’t forget to buckle up!
i. Va. Code § 46.2-1094(A).
ii. Id., at 46.2-1094(D).
iii. See Freeman v. Case Corp., 924 F. Supp. 1456 (W.D. Va. 1996).