What is the Seatbelt Defense?
If you hit a car whose driver isn’t wearing a seat belt, you could avoid paying damages by using the seatbelt defense. It’s a controversial legal principle because it allows defendants to escape responsibility for an accident even if they were at fault.
An Unpopular Law
Proponents of the seat belt defense view it is a sound policy for encouraging the use of seat belts, while the law’s detractors complain that it amounts to blaming the victim. Indeed, the victim’s failure to fasten the seat belt seems like a lesser offense than the defendant’s causing the accident, so why should the victim have to pay?
The State of Illinois has passed legislation expressly forbidding the use of the seat belt defense. But it is still in force in various forms in 16 States. Depending on the jurisdiction, a plaintiff could receive no award or merely a portion of the award if the defendant successfully uses the seat belt defense.
How Does the Seatbelt Defense Work?
In most automobile accident lawsuits, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s poor driving caused the plaintiff injury or property damage. Once the causal connection between the defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s injuries is established, the court can award the plaintiff compensation.
When a defendant evokes the seat belt defense, he or she is effectively countering the plaintiff’s assertion that the defendant’s actions caused the injuries. The idea is that the victim’s failure to wear a seat belt was a significant cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, to the extent that is should “reduce” the defendant’s responsibility.
Specifically, the defendant would need to show that:
- The plaintiff had seat belts available to her
- The plaintiff unreasonably failed to secure herself before the accident
- The failure to wear the seat belt caused aggravated injuries to the plaintiff
How to Defeat the Seat Belt Defense
The seat belt defense exists in different forms depending on the jurisdiction, so the plaintiff’s exact legal strategy for overcoming it will vary accordingly. In any case, however, the plaintiff would want to show that her injuries would have been equally severe with or without the seat belt. This would keep the defendant from arguing that the court should reduce the damages based on the plaintiff’s failure to wear the seat belt.
Fortunately, accident victims here in Illinois do not have to worry about the seat belt defense. But this may not be the case in other states, so there’s one more reason to always buckle up!