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Legislature, in 1985, enacted a statute prohibiting evidence of use or non-use of seat belts in all civil cases, but it repealed that prohibition in 2003.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.

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