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Mar 13, 2015

Texas Supreme Court Revamps Law Regarding Admissibility of Seat Belt Evidence

By: Michelle Robberson 

The Texas Supreme Court overruled more than 40 years of precedent relating to admissibility of seat belt evidence and submission to the jury of a plaintiff’s contributory negligence in Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero, __ S.W.3d __, No. 13-0136, 2015 WL 648858 (Tex., Feb. 13, 2015).  Since 1973, Texas common law barred the admission of evidence that the plaintiff was not wearing a seat belt.  This rule emerged because (a) Texas did not have a mandatory seat belt law at the time and no federal mandate existed either; and (b) the comparative responsibility scheme in existence at the time completely barred plaintiff’s recovery if the jury found him even 1% negligent. 

Most courts held in this time frame that the failure to wear a seat belt was not actionable negligence and, thus, evidence of it was inadmissible.  According to the Texas Supreme Court, this common-law rule was “designed to blunt the austerity of an all-or-nothing contributory-negligence scheme and ensure an equitable civil-justice system for all Texans.”

Now, four decades later, both the seat belt laws and Texas’s proportionate responsibility system have changed significantly.  The Legislature passed mandatory seat belt laws.  And, Texas’s current proportionate responsibility scheme requires the jury to determine the percentage of responsibility of each person (claimant, defendant, settling person, and responsible third party) “causing or contributing to cause in any way the harm for which recovery of damages is sought.”  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 33.003(a).  Today, the jury assesses the percentage responsibility applicable to each of these parties, and the plaintiff’s recovery is barred only if the jury assigns more than 50% responsibility to the plaintiff.  Given these changes, and other changes in society, the Texas Supreme Court determined it had to overrule the older cases not as “mistaken jurisprudence, but as once-prudent measures that have outlived their usefulness.”

Under the old law, evidence of “injury-causing conduct” (i.e., acts or omissions that did not cause an accident, but merely increased the plaintiff’s injury, such as not wearing of a seat belt) was not admissible.  The Texas Supreme Court changed that law in its new opinion Nabors Well Services, Ltd. v. Romero.  It concluded that, because of the plain language of the current proportionate responsibility scheme, the jury is entitled to consider relevant evidence of a plaintiff’s pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct in assessing the percentage responsibility of each party that caused or contributed to cause, “in any way,” the harm for which the plaintiff is seeking damages.  The court held that its ruling was not only correct statutory interpretation, but also promoted sound public policy in encouraging seat belt use, which has been scientifically proven to reduce injuries and save lives.