United States: Texas Supreme Court Overturns Longstanding Precedent: Seat-Belt Evidence Is Now Admissible

BACKGROUND ON NABORS DECISION

In Nabors Well Services Ltd. v. Romero, the Texas Supreme Court overruled 40 years of case law regarding the inadmissibility of the use or non-use of seat belts.1 The Court held that evidence of the failure to use seat belts is admissible for proving comparative negligence/proportionate fault on the part of a plaintiff if the nonuse caused or contributed in any way to the plaintiff's damages. This decision not only establishes that seatbelt evidence will be relevant in virtually any case involving automobiles, it strengthens the argument for admissibility of other types of comparative fault evidence in which a party's behavior contributes to the party's own injuries.

Texas has a proportionate responsibility system whereby a damaged party's recovery is reduced by its own degree of fault and is totally barred if the party is more than 50% at fault for its own injury.2 In automotive cases plaintiff's injuries are frequently caused or enhanced by their failure to wear seatbelts. Prior to Nabors, a party's failure to wear a seatbelt was inadmissible except in product liability cases involving the seatbelt itself. After Nabors, evidence that an injured party was or was not wearing a seat belt at the time of a car accident may be introduced in order to determine whether the party was to any degree at fault for his or her own injury. In reaching its decision the Court recognized the distinction between occurrence-causing and injury-causing negligence, and found that the language enacted by the Legislature in the Texas Proportionate Responsibility statute specifically allows apportionment for causing or contributing to injury.3 Further, in overturning the precedent from 1974, the Court justified that at the time of that decision, seat belts were not as common and their use was not required by law. Additionally, since the time of the 1974 decision, the Texas Legislature has overhauled the state's negligence statute and allows for apportionment of plaintiff's fault.

PROCEDURE FOR SEAT BELT EVIDENCE MOVING FORWARD

The Texas Supreme Court's decision in Nabors is fairly instructive in addressing how seat-belt evidence will be handled moving forward; specifically, it recognized that existing rules of evidence include everything needed to handle this type of evidence.4

Relevance: First, the Court pointed out that, as with any evidence, seat-belt evidence is admissible only if it is relevant, a determination which is within the trial court's province. The burden is on the defendant to put forth evidence that "nonuse caused or contributed to cause the plaintiff's injuries." The Court instructed that the trial court should first consider this evidence, for the purpose of making its relevance determination, outside the presence of the jury. The Court stated that "Expert testimony will often be required to establish relevance" but declined to say it will be required in all cases. And even relevant seat-belt evidence is subject to objection and exclusion under Rule 403 if its probative value is substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.

Jury Charge: Similarly, the Court noted that this holding should not cause any confusion about constructing the jury charge. A single apportionment question should be submitted, allowing the jury to consider both a plaintiff's (and other persons') pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct alongside his and other persons' occurrence-causing conduct. The jury is asked to apportion responsibility between all whose actions or products combined to cause the entirety of the plaintiff's injuries. Under Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code Section 33.003(a), the fact-finder may consider relevant evidence of plaintiff's failure to use a seat belt as a "negligent act or omission" or as a "violat[ion of] an applicable legal standard." The submission of seat-belt non-use by a child would be slightly different, as the law places responsibility on the driver for properly restraining children in the vehicle. Under the current law, children under age 15 do not violate seat-belt laws by failing to restrain themselves. However, minors are still held to the degree of care that would be exercised by an "ordinarily prudent child of [the same] age, intelligence, experience and capacity ... under the same or similar circumstances." The jury may further apportion third-party responsibility to the person upon whom the law places the burden to properly restrain the child. Accordingly, this holding also extends to the admissibility of pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct by third parties, even when that third party did not play a part in actually causing the occurrence.

POSSIBLE APPLICATION

Finally, it should be noted that this holding is not limited to just seat-belt evidence. The Court held that "relevant evidence of a plaintiff's pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct generally" will now be admissible. Thus, the Nabors holding opens up the possibility of consideration of "pre-occurrence, injury-causing conduct" in a variety of settings outside of auto collision cases.

Footnotes

1 Nabors Well Servs., Ltd. v. Romero, 456 S.W.3d 553, 555 (Tex.2015).

2 TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 33.001

3 TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 33.003(a) (allowing the fact finder to assign percentage of responsibility to any person "causing or contributing to cause in any way ... the personal injury, property damage, death, or any other harm for which recovery of damages is sought.").

4 Nabors, 456 S.W.3d at 563.

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