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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Seat-Belt Evidence Precedent Tossed

(CN) - Accident victims who do not wear seat belts can have that evidence used against them in civil trials, the Texas Supreme Court ruled.

Seat-belt evidence has been inadmissible for 40 years, but Justice Jeffrey Brown called its prohibition "a vestige of a bygone legal system and an oddity in light of modern societal norms."

Three adults and five children were riding in a Chevrolet Suburban in 2004 when it collided with a transport truck owned by Nabors Well Services.

Martin Soto tried to steer the Suburban around the Nabors truck while its driver turned left into the company's facility.

Soto's vehicle crashed off the highway and rolled several times. Aydee Romero, one of the adults in the Suburban, was killed. The other seven passengers were injured.

Evidence conflicted about which passengers in the Suburban were wearing seat belts. A state trooper wrote that only two passengers were restrained, but those two passengers testified that they were not.

According to the EMS report, one of the passengers stated that seven of the Suburban's eight occupants were ejected from the vehicle.

During the Soto and Romero families' lawsuit against Nabors and its driver, the trial court followed the Texas precedent in Carnation Co. v. Wong (1974) and excluded all evidence of who was not wearing a seat belt.

The jury found the defendants to be 51 percent at fault and awarded the plaintiffs just over $2.3 million.

The Texas Court of Appeals affirmed, but on Feb. 13 the Texas Supreme Court reversed and discarded the Carnation precedent.

"Texas' seat-belt law has expanded in its applicability over the years. In 2004, when the car accident in this case occurred, Texas law required a driver to properly restrain most children riding anywhere in the vehicle," Brown wrote for the court.

Texas laws on proportional responsibility also have evolved in the past four decades.

"Most would say a plaintiff who breaks the law or otherwise acts negligently by not using a seat belt is at least partially responsible for the harm that befalls him," Brown wrote. "This is true even if he did not cause the car accident, provided it can be shown that the failure to buckle up exacerbated his injuries."

Remanding to Texas' 8th District Court of Appeals, Brown said that "a jury can consider a plaintiff's pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct alongside his and other persons' occurrence-causing conduct."

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