First let me go on record, as the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys has, and greatly advocate the use of seat belts. It is one thing that we can all do to help enhance our safety. Unfortunately, sometimes I am faced with clients who are in serious motor vehicle accidents who did not have a seat belt on at the relevant time. What is my response when that fact is pointed out by an insurance company or a defense attorney? I steadfastly maintain that the failure to use a seat belt cannot be admitted into evidence in a civil action i.e. a personal injury action. I have successfully kept that information, or evidence, out in numerous civil cases. This applies to trials and arbitrations.
The seat belt statute, Massachusetts General Laws c. 90, s. 13A, requires the use of a seat belt subject to certain exceptions. It does not say, as is often thought, that failure to wear a seat belt cannot come in evidence in a civil action. However, based on my experience, the statute has been construed or interpreted as not permitting its use in a civil case. There is case law that addresses this issue. In a 1992 case of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the defendant wanted to say at trial, “Well, we are not introducing the failure to wear a seat belt for comparative negligence, we are introducing it to show that it had a causal effect on the plaintiff’s injuries”. But the Court, in noting that there was no expert testimony, did not permit that evidence or information to come in. The Supreme Judicial Court stated in effect that the defendant failed to produce any evidence that the plaintiff’s failure to wear her seat belt was causally related to her injuries. In the absence of any such evidence, the trial judge properly refused to submit the issue to the jury, for the jury would have been left to speculate whether the plaintiff’s failure to wear her seat belt contributed to her injuries. Shahzade v. C.J. Mabardy, Inc., 411 Mass.788.
In prior blogs, I have spoken about the evils of speculation and here you can see the court’s mindset when it uses the word “speculation.” In the absence of expert testimony, the trial judge is instructed by the higher courts not to admit evidence of the failure to wear a seat belt. Your attorney in your auto accident case should never allow a defendant to come to the courthouse to say that the plaintiff should have worn a seat belt. That should be met with the most strenuous of objections.
There is one very helpful fact for your attorney in objecting to the introduction in evidence of the non-use of a seat belt. There are other statutes under Massachusetts General Laws c. 90 that set out certain requirements for driving. In those statutes, by their explicit terms, they say that a violation is “evidence of negligence”. Fortunately, there is no such language in the seat belt statute. Massachusetts General Laws c. 90, s. 13A. That silence – that absence of such language – speaks volumes. Make sure that if you failed to wear a seat belt, your injury lawyer takes note of the varying language in the different sections of the motor vehicle statute, Chapter 90. It will help to keep this potentially troubling evidence from a fact-finder.
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