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Can I Recover Damages if I Was Not Wearing a Seat Belt at the Time of a Car Accident?

In about 16 states, there is a defense to personal injury litigation known as the "seat belt defense" that is dreaded by every plaintiff. Why? Because the seat belt defense reduces the amount of recovery awarded as a result of a car accident if the claimant was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. Damages may be less because the claimant failed to click a seat belt when getting into a car, even if the car accident that caused the injuries was completely the fault of another.

The seat belt defense is controversial and a hotly charged topic in some jurisdictions. Some argue it seems harsh or unfair; others say the law requires wearing a seat belt, so there should be repercussions for violations of the critical lifesaving and injury-reducing law.

To Whom Does the Seat Belt Defense Apply?

The seat belt defense is not uniformly adopted in the U.S. A personal injury or traffic attorney can provide information as to whether a particular jurisdiction has adopted this defense. The seat belt defense is not limited to drivers who seek damages from auto accident injuries, but applies equally to passengers who may be injured in car collisions and seek recoveries for their injuries.

How Does the Seat Belt Defense Work?

The seat belt defense is closely related to a particular jurisdiction’s liability laws. Personal injury litigation is designed to ascertain who is at fault for causing a particular injury or damage. The seat belt defense goes to the heart of that liability analysis.

For instance, if a car is involved in a rear-end collision and the driver of the vehicle hit from behind suffers a head trauma, the driver will try to establish that liability for the injuries lies with the striking car’s driver. But, what if the injured driver was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the rear-end collision? In that case, if the information becomes known during the claims or litigation process, it will be taken into account by the insurance claims adjuster, the presiding judge, or the jury when making a determination of damages. The end result is that the injured driver who was not wearing a seat belt will receive a reduced damage award due to the seat belt defense and its punitive impact.

Is There an Alternative to the Seat Belt Defense?

The majority of U.S. states do not adopt the seat belt defense. These states mandate the use of seat belts but they rely on principles such as comparative or contributory negligence, and other legal theories to determine causes of accidents and how to apportion damages among liable parties. In such states, the fact that an injured party did not wear a seat belt is not allowed as evidence to be introduced at trial. And in some states where the defense is used, the reduction percentage for damage claims is limited to 15 percent because the seat belt defense is seen as harsh.