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March 2021


It only sounds like common sense: Why repealing the seat belt evidence rules serves no public purpose

By Genevieve M. Zimmerman, Patrick Stoneking, & Joel D. Carlson 

0321-Car-InsuranceEliminating Minnesota’s long-standing seat belt evidence rule, as recently promoted in one Bench & Bar article,1 would result in the largest windfall to negligent drivers and their insurance companies that lawmakers could ever give them. Over the last 25 years, there have been multiple efforts by the insurance and trucking industries to repeal this law. Each time, policymakers have weighed the benefits of repeal (there are none) and the harm to injured motorists (it’s extensive) and they have rightly rejected this unfair money grab by the insurance industry. 

First, despite a record number of Minnesotans buckling up, our state continues to suffer tremendous devastation from the actions of careless drivers. Specifically, according to the Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) annual Crash Facts Report in 2019:2 

  • 80,636 traffic crashes were reported to DPS; these crashes involved 148,774 vehicles and 174,422 people; 
  • these crashes caused 364 deaths and injured 27,260; 
  • 4,000 crashes were alcohol-related, resulting in 114 deaths and 2,176 injuries; and
  • none of the crashes were reported to have been caused by anyone’s failure to wear a seat belt.

In view of these facts, the Legislature has rightly decided that the public is better served by a civil justice system that puts responsibility for crashes on those who caused the crashes in the first place. Crashes are caused by many preventable and careless behaviors, including distracted driving, speeding, chemical and alcohol use, and simply failing to pay attention, among other violations of the rules of the road. Crashes are not, however, caused by seat belts. 

Of course, it goes without saying that people should wear seat belts—which, in 94 percent of cases, Minnesotans do. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has studied seat belt use and determined the best way to increase compliance is to make failure to use a seat belt a primary offense, something Minnesota has already done. Legislative efforts to allow the use of seat belt evidence in civil cases often claim to have a similar effect, but in fact they have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with shifting liability away from those who cause crashes and onto those who are innocently injured by the carelessness of others. By definition, because the seat belt evidence has nothing to do with assigning blame for the crash, the introduction of seat belt evidence only serves to allow a careless driver to tell the victim of their negligence that their injuries are their own fault. This is a dangerous rule that leads to awful and unjust outcomes—all of which are directly beneficial to the insurance industry.

The suggestion that juries should hear seat belt evidence may seem to make sense, which is part of the reason other states have given in to the insurance industry’s demands to put such evidence before a jury whenever possible. After all, jurors would likely think it is very relevant that an injured person was not wearing his or her seat belt when a crash occurred. But the rules of evidence always face a difficult balancing act: Is this evidence really as important as it would seem to be? Does this evidence need further explanation for the jury to understand it? And even with such an explanation, will the jury ever interpret this evidence the way the law thinks it should? This analysis is familiar to any attorney and is the reason that courts keep all sorts of interesting information from the jury. 

In fact, the rules of evidence almost always prevent the jury from getting to hear the juicy details that it might want to know in deciding a case. For example, you cannot tell the jury that the defense attorney is really an employee of the insurance company and that the defendant will not pay one penny of his own money to compensate the plaintiff. Some states allow that evidence, but Minnesota
does not. 

The jury might also like to hear that the plaintiff’s extensive injuries would make her completely dependent on the taxpayers for care because her health insurance would not cover the extensive support that she requires to live. That type of information might make a jury less likely to let a culpable defendant’s insurance company off the hook, but Minnesota courts would not allow such a discussion to occur at trial either. So when we talk about introducing seat belt evidence as evidence a person is to blame for his or her own injuries, it has nothing to do with giving the jury all the facts because what the jury actually sees and hears is the subject of a huge number of carefully crafted rules.

Seat belt evidence is both very powerful and also very likely to be misunderstood, so it is exactly the type of evidence judges are careful with—even in states where they allow it as evidence. Allowing highly prejudicial and easily misunderstood evidence is dangerous as it results in unjust outcomes. To illustrate, in one newsworthy case, a Walmart driver who had not slept for over 24 hours fell asleep at the wheel before ramming his 80,000-pound 18-wheeler into the back end of a limo bus carrying comedian Tracy Morgan and four others. Evidence showed that the driver was traveling over 20 miles per hour above the speed limit at the time of the crash. Morgan and three others sustained serious and life-threating injuries, and passenger Jimmy Mack was killed. 

Walmart’s response? Morgan and the others were at fault for their own injuries because they were not wearing seat belts. This is truly an absurd argument and no sound policy is served by allowing it. Despite the ridiculous defense of the claim, Morgan settled with Walmart, but others have not been so lucky. 

The state of Florida allows seat belt evidence without limitation. In 2015, Ryland Nye was rear-ended by a drunk off-duty police officer, who fled the scene after the crash.3 Nye was ejected from his car and killed. The officer could not attend the Nye estate’s civil trial because he was in jail for the accident. The insurance company’s lawyer was able to convince the jury at trial that Nye was completely responsible for his own injuries. His estate recovered nothing, despite the jailed officer having significant insurance coverage. Is that fair or just? 

These are exactly the type of windfalls that Minnesota truckers and insurers are looking for. They are hoping to avoid paying on behalf of their drunk, distracted, or negligent drivers and leave somebody else—anybody else—holding the bag. 

As noted above, the seat belt evidence rule would not even come up in the vast majority of cases because so many Minnesotans follow the law. But whenever it came up, it would become such a tremendous can of worms that the Legislature has wisely opted to leave that can sealed. For one thing, the seat belt defense would become an expensive proposition for everybody involved, because it hinges on complicated issues of biomechanics and medicine. Whenever such a defense is raised, a defendant and insurance company would need to hire scientific experts to support their affirmative defense that the lack of seat belt use was to blame for all or part of the injury. Perversely, this battle of experts would be more significant in smaller cases because the insurance company could always defend the case by arguing (regardless of merit) that its driver may have caused the crash but that the injured person would have been perfectly fine if he or she had been wearing a seat belt.

Insurance companies know that in practice, the mere prospect of hiring biomechanical engineers to testify is likely to keep many plaintiffs with serious but relatively minor injuries out of the courtroom altogether. Insurers know that this would lead to windfall profits for their companies, as they could comfortably deny such claims on a wholesale basis regardless
of merit. 

The Legislature has examined evidence about repealing the seat belt evidence rule many times over the past 25 years. Whenever they start peeling the onion to look at the real evidence, it is clear who really benefits from this change: insurance companies. Given the potentially devastating losses to their constituents, the response of our elected representatives has repeatedly been a correct and resounding NO. We hope that continues in 2021 and well into the future. 


GENEVIEVE M. ZIMMERMAN (Meshbesher & Spence) is the president of the Minnesota Association for Justice. 

PATRICK STONEKING (Jeff Anderson and Associates) is the legislative chair of the Minnesota Association for Justice. 

JOEL D. CARLSON (Joel Carlson Legal Research) is the chief lobbyist for the Minnesota Association for Justice. 


Notes

1 “Click it or Zip It: It’s Time to Rethink the Seat Belt Gag Rule,” Michael T. Burke and Brandon D. Meshbesher, Bench & Bar of Minnesota, January 2021.

2 Crash Facts, Minnesota Department of Public Safety 2019 edition. 

3 Jones v. Alayon, 162 So. 3d 360 (Fla. Dist.
Ct. App. 2015).

 
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