Question: Is Evidence Of A Motorist Not Wearing Their Seat Belt At The Time Of An Auto Accident Admissible To Prove Contributory Negligence?
Answer: No, The Violation Of The Seatbelt Act May Not Be Used To Prove Contributory Negligence.
In 2005, a vehicle operated by an officer collided with a vehicle operated by Chad Reuille (“Reuille”). Katie Parrish was a front seat passenger in Reuille’s car and was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the collision, although the seat where she was sitting was equipped with a seatbelt meeting the applicable federal standards. As a result of the collision, Parrish was thrown from the vehicle and sustained physical injuries. Parrish filed a negligence action against the City, the police officer’s employer, based on the motor vehicle collision. Prior to trial, she filed a motion in limine seeking to exclude from the trial any evidence that she had not been wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. In her motion, she argued this evidence was inadmissible to show either her contributory negligence or her failure to mitigate damages. In response, the City argued that evidence of her seatbelt usage was admissible because Parrish had a duty to wear her seatbelt under the Seatbelt Act, and evidence of her seatbelt usage was relevant to prove that she was guilty of contributory negligence for her injuries. The trial court granted Parrish’s motion in limine and the City appealed.
On appeal, the City argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted Parrish’s motion in limine because, according to the City, evidence that Parrish was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the collision was admissible to prove her contributory negligence for her injuries. In response, Parrish argues that the seatbelt defense may not be used under Indiana law to prove contributory negligence in her tort claim action against the City. She also asserts that, even if she was negligent, such negligence was not actionable because her lack of a seatbelt was not the proximate cause of the automobile accident.
The Court of Appeals went on to state that this case revolves around the question of whether Parrish was contributorily negligent because she was not wearing her seatbelt during the automobile collision. Tort claims against governmental units such as the City are subject to the common law principle of contributory negligence because Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act does not apply to such entities. Contributory negligence allows a defendant to escape liability if he or she can show that the plaintiff was also negligent and that the plaintiff’s negligence was a responsible cause of his or her injuries. The plaintiff’s actions do not need to be the sole cause of the injuries. In fact, under common law principles, any contributory negligence on the plaintiff’s part, no matter how slight, will bar all recovery provided that the plaintiff’s negligence actually caused his or her injuries. As a result, the City hopes to escape its alleged liability by arguing that Parrish’s failure to wear a seatbelt was, in some way, the cause of the automobile accident. Specifically, the City asserts that Parrish was negligent per se because she violated the duty of care established by the Seatbelt Act. Negligence per se is the unexcused or unjustified violation of a duty prescribed by statute where the statute is intended to protect the class of persons in which the plaintiff is included and to protect against the type of harm which has occurred as a result of the violation. Both parties acknowledge, a person’s failure to wear a seatbelt or noncompliance with the Seatbelt Act cannot be used to prove the negligence of parties that are subject to the Comparative Fault Act. However, the City argues that, because it is not subject to the Comparative Fault Act, it may use the Seatbelt Act to prove that Parrish had a statutory duty to wear her seatbelt and, thus, was negligent per se under common law. However, it is a well-established principle of statutory interpretation that where a statute is in derogation of the common law, we must construe it strictly against the expansion of liability. Accordingly, as there has not been a clear mandate from the legislature stating that seatbelt usage may be used to prove fault under the common law, we conclude that the legislature has not altered common law. Therefore, we also conclude that the trial court here did not abuse its discretion in granting Parrish’s motion in limine, because her failure to use her seatbelt could not be used to prove her contributory negligence. 32 N.E.3d 275