Seat belts have been hailed as the most significant automotive safety device since the automobile’s advent. However, with the fully electric car manufacturer, Tesla, now having implemented in its cars partial Autopilot as of November, 2015, this claim may not hold true for much longer. Statistics show front seat passenger car occupants who wear a seatbelt reduce their risk of fatal injury by 45%.
Because the seat belt is so effective in reducing injuries it is today considered contributory negligence on the part of the injured victim for failure to wear a seat belt. Despite this the seat belt defense was not always accepted in Canada and indeed, even today the seatbelt defence is very controversial in the United States and the majority of states do not recognize it. Only 15 states in the United States allow a reduction in damages under circumstances for failure to wear a seat belt.
However in Canada, the seat belt defence has been widely adopted and failure to wear a seat belt has resulted in reductions in the award to innocent victims of 10% to 30%!
Defending No Seatbelt Ticket
Nevertheless, the seat belt defence is not easy for the auto insurance company’s lawyer to prove. The burden of proof is on the auto insurance company’s lawyer to show, that on a balance of probabilities:
- The plaintiff failed to wear his/her seat belt
- A seat belt was available and functional
- Seat belt usage would have reduced or eliminated the plaintiff’s injuries
Establishing number 1 is quite easy today as the majority of vehicles have seat belt sensors which capture the status of seat belts at the time of collision. This data may then be downloaded and interpreted from the “Event Data Recorder” (like the black box on and airplane) by an accident-reconstructionist.
It becomes more complicated in establishing if the seat belt was functional – number 2 above. For example, in the very large Ford Expedition vehicle, the third-row seat has seat belts with shoulder harnesses, which have been proven in several cases would not hold a young child in place which resulted in the child being ejected in a rollover because the shoulder harness did not hold the child in place.
Fortunately, however, this is a rare situation and seat belts are typically available and functional.
The usual argument in many cases to defeat a reduction for failure to wear a seatbelt is that in a severe collision the seat belt would not have reduced or eliminated the plaintiff’s injuries (point number 3 above). In order to prove that the seat belt would have made a difference, the defendant auto insurance company must hire not only an accident-reconstructionist but also a biomechanical engineer. A biomechanical engineer is an expert regarding the impact of the collision, in the medical sense, the forces would have upon a human body. If it is shown that the injured victim would have sustained similar injuries or different injuries but of similar or greater severity, a seat belt defense will likely not be successful.
This is an important issue as if the defendant auto insurance company is successful in arguing contributory negligence the “innocent” victim’s award will be reduced by 10% to 30%.
Handel Law Firm is Alberta’s serious personal injury and fatal accident law firm serving the cities and areas of Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie.