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Victims of car accidents may sometimes contribute to their own injuries. Florida’s comparative fault statute is stated in Fla. Stat. 761.81, which provides that a driver’s contributory negligence reduces the amount of compensation received. In Florida, if you were not wearing a seat belt at the time of a car accident, the other driver may claim that not wearing your seat belt contributed to your injuries. This blog post explains the seat belt defense, which is allowed in only fifteen states.
Here is the situation
Imagine being in a serious car accident. Let’s say the other driver is clearly to blame. Perhaps the driver ran a red light or was speeding. You were driving perfectly fine, however, you did not have your seat belt on.
In this scenario, even if the other driver is fully at fault, his or her attorney may argue that you should carry some of the blame because you were not wearing your seat belt. The reasoning is that had you been wearing your seat belt, the injuries you sustained would be significantly less severe. This is an example of the seat belt defense.
In 1992, Harold Ridley was driving his pickup truck when he and his daughter Tabitha, who was a passenger in the truck, were engaged in an intersection collision with a service truck driven by an employee of Safety Kleen Corporation.
Mr. Ridley filed a lawsuit against the Safety Kleen Corporation and Calhoun County. Mr. Ridley alleged that the driver of the Safety Kleen truck went directly through an intersection despite the word “STOP” written on the pavement. Mr. Ridley’s failure to use his seat belt was raised by the lawyer for Safety Kleen Corporation as an affirmative defense.
The case ultimately reached the Florida Supreme Court. The court held that failing to wear a seat belt can be used as an affirmative defense of comparative negligence. Fla. Stat. 316.614 now also contains this rule. The court explained that if a jury considers that a reasonably cautious individual would have put on their seat belt in the same circumstances, it can be considered proof of negligence, which may reduce the amount of damages you are able to recover. As a result, in Florida, a defendant is likely to raise the seat belt defense.
In 2000, a Florida court determined that a defendant must prove three elements to prevail on the seat belt defense. First, the defendant must prove that the driver failed to wear its available and functional seat belt. Second, the defendant must prove that the driver was unreasonable under the circumstances by not wearing its seat belt. Third, the defendant must prove that the driver’s failure to wear the seat belt caused or substantially contributed to the driver’s injuries.
How can someone prove a driver was not wearing a seat belt?
There are a few ways to prove in court that a driver was not wearing a seat belt. First, the testimony of a lay witness can be used to prove whether a seat belt was worn. For example, if someone spoke to the driver shortly after the accident and the driver admitted to not wearing a seat belt, this admission can be used in court for proof. Also, a vehicle technician who specializes in seat belts may be able to provide evidence showing whether a seat belt was worn in a crash. Lastly, oftentimes a doctor, after examining the injuries sustained in the crash, will be able to provide an expert opinion as to whether the driver was wearing a seat belt.
Would I have to pay for an expert to testify?
Yes, but only if you win. A car accident attorney is likely to handle case costs as they arise, deducting them from your part of a potential settlement or court award. It is uncommon for a personal injury attorney to bill a client for costs as they accrue. In a personal injury case, costs and expenses may very well include expert witnesses. They also can include medical records, police reports, investigators, postage and filing fees, depositions, transcripts, and trial exhibits.
This method of billing is called a contingency fee. You only pay your lawyer on the contingency that you win the case. Most car accident lawyers will handle case costs on a contingency.
Florida has a comparative fault statute. Regarding seat belts, Florida’s laws state that if you fail to wear an available, operable seatbelt, and the injuries you sustained could have been lessened had you worn that seatbelt, then you can have your reward for damages reduced. With that said, depending on the facts of your case, the seat belt defense can be complex. Make sure to hire an injury lawyer who specializes in car accidents that will assist you and adequately protect your rights. And remember to always wear your seat belt!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Leaser, Esq. is a car accident attorney serving Greenacres, Florida, and its surrounding areas. If you recently were injured in a car accident in Florida, call (561) 559-5048 for a free consultation.