United States: Texas Supreme Court: Relevant Evidence Of A Plaintiff's Use Or Non-Use Of A Seat Belt Is Admissible

On February 13, 2015, the Texas Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion that will likely have major ramifications in civil lawsuits involving motor vehicle accidents. The Court overruled 40 years of precedent and held that relevant evidence of use or non-use of seat belts is admissible for the purpose of apportioning responsibility in civil lawsuits. The Court made its decision in light of the Texas Legislature's repeal of its statutory ban on all seat-belt evidence and the current framework of the state's proportionate-responsibility scheme, which "requires fact-finders to consider relevant evidence of a plaintiff's pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct." Nabors Well Servs. v. Romero, 456 S.W.3d 553, 2015 Tex. LEXIS 142, at *23, 58 Tex. Sup. J. 347 (Tex. 2015).

Prior to Romero, the Texas Supreme Court's reason for excluding evidence of one's use or non-use of a seat belt was that although a plaintiff's failure to use a seat belt may exacerbate his injuries, it cannot cause a car accident and, as such, it should not reduce plaintiff's recovery. Relatedly, the Texas Legislature, in 1985, enacted a statute prohibiting evidence of use or non-use of seat belts in all civil cases, but it repealed that prohibition in 2003. What changed between 1974 and today? The Legislature overhauled Texas' system for apportioning fault in negligence cases, such that Texas now follows a pure comparative responsibility scheme. A plaintiff's negligence can now be apportioned alongside a defendant's fault without entirely barring the plaintiff's recovery. Also, unlike 1974, seat belts are now required by law and, as the Court observed, "have become an unquestioned part of daily life for the vast majority of drivers and passengers." Id. at *2. "These changes have rendered our prohibition on seat-belt evidence an anachronism. The rule may have been appropriate in its time, but today it is a vestige of a bygone legal system and an oddity in light of modern societal norms." Id.

The Court noted that attitudes toward use of seat belts have evolved drastically over the past 40 years. When it initially held that one's use or non-use of seat belts was not admissible, car manufacturers had only recently been required to install seat belts as standard equipment, but relatively few people nationwide wore them – only about 14% in 1984, the year before Texas enacted its first seat-belt law. During the intervening decades that seat-belt use has become the law, the number has jumped to 84% nationally and 93.7% in Texas. "Seat-belt laws are now in effect in every state, and the vast majority of Texans buckle up on a regular basis. Yet until today a contradictory legal system punished seat-belt nonuse with criminal citations while allowing plaintiffs in civil lawsuits to benefit from juries' ignorance of their misconduct." Id. at *30.

The Court further observed that there is no need to deviate from a single broad form apportionment question, which in Texas typically includes a reference to the "occurrence or injury" and that a jury can consider a plaintiff's pre-occurrence causing conduct alongside his and other persons' occurrence causing conduct.

We suggest that attorneys defending motor vehicle accident cases include in their interrogatories a question whether the plaintiff was wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident and, if appropriate, plead the plaintiff's failure to wear a seat belt as an affirmative defense.

The Romero decision is likely to have a tremendous impact on civil lawsuits in Texas involving motor vehicle accidents.

Punitive damages in Texas: Good things to know

Here is a basic primer on punitive damages under Texas law. The conduct justifying an award of punitive damages is fraud, malice or gross negligence. The burden of proof for gross negligence and punitive damages is clear and convincing evidence. For exemplary damages to be awarded, the jury must be unanimous on both liability and the amount. Recovery of punitive damages requires a finding of an independent tort and only if damages other than nominal damages are awarded. Exemplary damages may not be awarded to a claimant who elects to have his recovery multiplied under another statute. Pre-judgment interest may not be assessed or recovered on an award of punitive damages. There are monetary limits on punitive damages. Such damages may not exceed an amount equal to the greater of (1) two times the amount of economic damages, plus an amount equal to any non-economic damages found by the jury, not to exceed $750,000.00; or (2) $200,000.00. The limits on punitive damages do not apply for certain conduct described in the Penal Code if the conduct was committed knowingly or intentionally (e.g., forgery, commercial bribery, murder, misapplication of fiduciary property, intoxication assault, or injury to a child, elderly individual or disabled individual). In determining the amount of punitive damages, the jury shall consider evidence of the following factors: (1) the nature of the wrong; (2) the character of the conduct involved; (3) the degree of culpability of the wrongdoer; (4) the situation and sensibilities of the parties concerned; (5) the extent to which such conduct offends a public sense of justice and propriety; and (6) the defendant's net worth. The standards for recovery of punitive damages are found in Chapter 41 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.

The Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code was amended, effective September 1, 2015, to modify the protocol and standards for discovering net worth in a lawsuit seeking punitive damages. Now, if a plaintiff wants to discover net worth from a defendant, he must file a motion and have a hearing. The court "may" authorize the discovery if the court finds in a written order that plaintiff has demonstrated a "substantial likelihood of success on the merits" on the claim for exemplary damages and even then, the court may only authorize use of the "least burdensome method available" to obtain net worth information. Finally, if a plaintiff requests net worth discovery under this section, the court shall presume plaintiff has had adequate time for discovery of the facts relating to the discovery of exemplary damages such that a defendant may file a no evidence motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's claim for exemplary damages. The statute applies only to lawsuits filed on or after September 1, 2015.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.