Mendoza v. WIS Int’l, Inc. – Seat Belt Defense in Car Accident Lawsuits

The Arkansas Supreme Court, in a divided opinion, ruled that a provision of law that prohibits the so-called “seat belt defense” in car accident lawsuits is unconstitutional.

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In Mendoza v. WIS Int’l, Inc., justices were tasked with answering whether Arkansas Code Annotated section 27-37-703, which states the failure of a vehicle occupant to wear a properly adjusted and fastened seat belt should not be admissible as evidence in a civil action, violated the separation of powers doctrine of the state constitution. Answer: Yes.

This is bad news for injured car accident plaintiffs in Arkansas. Essentially what it means is if you do not wear a seat belt, you could be found comparatively at-fault, which could reduce or eliminate your rightful claim to damages. Arkansas follows a model of modified comparative fault with a 50 percent bar, which means if a plaintiff is more than half at-fault for his her own injuries (or the extent of his or her own injuries), plaintiff can’t collect any damages at all. In Florida, however, plaintiffs can be up to 99 percent liable for their own injuries and still collect on that remaining 1 percent fault held by defendant (this is known as the pure comparative fault model).¬†

Also in Florida, the courts have historically allowed the so-called “seat belt defense.” That means if you are injured in a car accident in Florida and were not wearing your seat belt, you can bet the defense will bring it up. The¬†logic is that when a person fails to abide the law and buckle up, they put themselves at greater risk of a known danger (i.e., injury in a crash) and therefore need to be accountable for that, even if they didn’t actually cause the car accident.

So let’s say another person rear-ends you but you weren’t wearing a seat belt and you were ejected from the vehicle. Defense might concede liability, but argue comparative fault with the seat belt defense, asserting your injuries were far more severe than they would have been had you been following the law and wearing a safety belt. If jurors accept this argument, your damage award could be reduced significantly. It also weakens the bargaining power you have in settlement negotiations.

This is not to say plaintiffs who did not wear a seat belt can’t win, but it’s tougher and the damage award is likely to be lower.

Arkansas had been one of 31 states that outright rejected the seat belt defense. With the new ruling, that is no longer true, and it will be interesting to see whether the issue is now raised in other sister courts under the same legal reasoning.

In Mendoza, plaintiff was a passenger in the back seat of a vehicle operated by a driver who ran into a parked excavator. She suffered injury and sought damages against the driver and his employer. Defendants plead the affirmative defense of comparative fault, citing plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt. Defendants then filed a motion that challenged the constitutionality of the state provision against using a lack of seat belt in civil actions.

The state supreme court’s majority opinion found the statute is procedural and thus “offends the principle of separation of powers” under the state’s constitution.

Dissenting Justice Rhonda K. Wood disagreed, saying the majority’s analysis was “inherently flawed” and that, “the majority finds that our rules do not mean what they say.”

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Mendoza v. WIS Int’l, Inc., April 14, 2016, Arkansas Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Multiple Vehicle Collision and Injury Claims, April 8, 2016, Naples Car Accident Lawyer Blog