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Can I Still Sue for Damages If I Wasn’t Wearing My Seatbelt?

By now, everyone knows, or should know that wearing a seatbelt is required by law for both motorists and passengers. In addition, many familiar with North Carolina negligence law know that this state follows a scheme of pure contributory negligence. This means generally that if a victim contributes in a substantial way to their own injuries then they are not allowed to recover damages from the defendant who was the primary cause of the accident. For example, if a car crash plaintiff is determined to have been speeding and contributed ten percent to the injuries they sustained, this normally means that person cannot recover any damages at all from the defendant who was 90 percent at fault for the accident.

However, what comes as a surprise to many is that the same state statutes requiring proper seatbelt use also provide that failure to wear a seatbelt does not count as contributory negligence here. This means that if you are injured in a car accident caused primarily by someone else but are not wearing a seatbelt, this will not bar you from recovering monetary damages from defendant.

Procedural History

Our seatbelt laws, on the books here since the 1980s, include a provision that evidence of an injured plaintiff’s failure to wear a seatbelt is not admissible in any criminal or civil trial¸ except in cases based on a traffic ticket for violation of the seatbelt laws, or as a justification for the stopping or detention of a vehicle.

The Apportionment of Fault Problem

Long before seatbelts were required statewide, the North Carolina Supreme Court examined the issue of contributory negligence from failure to use a seatbelt in 1968 in Miller v. Miller. The Court acknowledged that if seat belts were to become required by law in the future, that the issue of proximate cause would have to be examined. Proximate cause is one of the two types of causation that must be proven in any negligence claim, and it means that an event must be sufficiently related in time and space to be considered a cause of injury.

The Court in Miller predicted that if seatbelts eventually became required by law, then in motor vehicle accident cases where another person’s actions cause the plaintiff damage, various safety experts would be required to testify about that relationship between the injuries caused and the failure to wear a seat belt. Aside from how practically complicated it can be to apportion fault in accidents, the Court stated that process could also result in verdicts based on “prejudice and sympathy” instead of the law.

The situation described above is exactly what happens in the majority of states in negligence cases, however. North Carolina is only one of four states and the District of Columbia that still follow the harsh doctrine of pure contributory negligence. Other states, by contrast, use some form of comparative fault. This can take one of two main forms: pure comparative fault, in which an injured plaintiff can collect proportional damages even if they are 99 percent at fault; and modified comparative fault, in which the injured plaintiff will be barred only if they are a certain percentage, usually 50 or 51 percent, at fault. Necessary in any negligence analysis in comparative fault states is an apportionment of fault similar to the one the Miller Court in North Carolina wanted to avoid.

The way that our seatbelt laws have since been drafted allowed the courts to continue not having to apportion fault in injury cases involving seatbelt use, while also not coming down as harshly on defendants as contributory negligence normally does. Since the passage of our seatbelt laws, our courts have also held that misuse of a seatbelt is equivalent to nonuse of a seatbelt for the purposes of not counting as contributory negligence.

Traffic Violation

None of this is to say that a person should avoid using their seatbelt or use it improperly. Failure to wear a seatbelt, misuse of a seatbelt, or improper use of child restraints are all punishable as traffic violations.

If you or someone you love has been injured in a motor vehicle accident caused by someone else’s negligence, it is important to speak with a local personal injury/car accident attorney. Arnold & Smith, PLLC is an aggressive civil and criminal litigation firm with offices in Charlotte, Mooresville and Monroe North Carolina. Contact us today for an initial consultation about your case with one of our experienced and compassionate personal injury attorneys.

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