Seat Belt Law & Defense in AZ: Does it Reduce the Damages You Can Claim?
Buckle up. It’s the seat belt law.
But what if you didn’t? And then were hit by another car? And injured?
Two wrongs don’t make a right. But can your wrong lessen your ability to claim damages from another party in wrong, the one who hit you?
Arizona, by law, is a comparative fault state [A.R.S. ? 12-2506]. Comparative (sometimes called Contributory) fault means that the jury, after all of the evidence, has been heard and arguments made. This will be tasked with assigning percentages of fault for the accident. This meting out of fault is essentially determining the amount that each party’s respective negligence (failure to act as a reasonably cautious person would) caused the accident and injuries. Fault can1 be assigned to both the plaintiffs and defendants as well as properly notified non-parties [A.R.S. 12-2506(B) and (C)].
For an example of how fault works, consider a passenger in a vehicle involved in an accident. The passenger might bring suit against the drivers of any other vehicles involved in the accident, including the one in which he or she rode. The hypothetical passenger might also bring suit against the city or state for negligent maintenance, or the companies that the other drivers work for.
After the lawyers for each party had rested their cases, the jury would then deliberate over who was at fault for the accident, and how much responsibility each party had for causing it.
For example, if the jury finds for $100,000 in damages and assigns 50% of the fault to Defendant A and 50% to Defendant B, each will be responsible for $50,000. Likewise if any percentage of fault is attributed to the plaintiff or a non-party. Defendants are only responsible for the percentage of the award for which they are at fault.
Arizona law requires all drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts [ARS 28-909]. The Seatbelt Defense is an argument raised by the defendant’s lawyers to convince the jury that your injuries would not have happened, or would have been less severe had you been wearing a seatbelt. Like other types of negligence in automobile accidents, it is establishing that you breached a duty of care by failing to follow a law and that that led to or worsened your injuries. They do this in the hopes of erasing or lowering the percentage of fault that will be attributed to the defendant, thus lowering the amount of the award they would have to pay.
In many cases, however, wearing a seatbelt would have done little to mitigate injury or death, and in some cases may even have caused worse injuries. Juries can and have found defendant entirely at fault even where plaintiffs have not worn seatbelts, especially when the injured party is a passenger or minor child.
The typical personal injury case involves the testimonies of expert witnesses. Doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors and the like will explain the injuries and how they are or are not related to the accident and what likely expenses will come in the future. Medical experts for you will help show that you sustained and suffered, perhaps continue to suffer, as a result of the accident. Professional engineers, biokineticist, and accident reconstruction specialists will show how the accident took place and the forces involved. Both of these groups of experts will try to show how the seatbelt or lack thereof contributed to the injuries sustained. The following cases will give you a better idea of what to expect to see in the courtroom.
Seat Belt Law: Ferguson v. Mesa Citrus Growers and Corona
In this wrongful death suit, Defendant Corona was driving a bus transporting migrant workers for his employer, Mesa Citrus Growers. A non-party driver, Ojeda, while driving in front of Corona, changed lanes from the median lane to the curbside lane ahead of another non-party driver, Perez. Perez veered to the right onto the dirt shoulder and spun out. Rather than slowing, Corona moved into the median lane from the curbside lane to avoid Perez’s car. In doing so struck another vehicle before continuing across the median into the opposite flow of traffic. Corona’s bus hit two different vehicles head on, killing one driver at the scene. Ferguson was the driver of the second vehicle and she was not wearing her seatbelt. She was evacuated to a nearby hospital where she later died after an emergency cesarean section. Her husband and two children brought this suit.
During the nine day trial, both sides called experts and the attorneys for the defense argued that Ferguson was partially at fault for her failure to obey the law and wear a seatbelt. Ferguson’s lawyers in turn argued that the seatbelt would not have saved her life. After five hours of deliberation the jury found the Defendant 100% at fault and awarded Ferguson $2,328,785.53.
Seat Belt Law: Esson v. La Puesta Del Sol Party Facility, Inc. and Ayoub
In another wrongful death suit, the mother of the deceased brought suit against La Puesta Del Sol Party Facility (LPDS), a party venue, and Ayoub, who worked as a bartender for LPDS. On the night of the accident the deceased was present at an LPDS event while Ayoub was working. Both became intoxicated, and Ayoub attempted to take the deceased back to the catering business that the deceased had worked for while at the party.
While allegedly speeding Ayoub lost control of the vehicle and it rolled, ejecting the defendant’s son, who died. The Court ruled in the case, granting summary judgment to the plaintiff on the issue of the Plaintiff’s son’s fault for not wearing a seatbelt, meaning LPDS and Ayoub could not argue that it was the son’s fault. After a six day trial and two hours of deliberation the jury found that LPDS was 84% at fault for failing to properly monitor Ayoub’s illegal drinking. Ayoub was found 16% at fault. The jury awarded $2,500,000 in damages, $2,100,000 of which was owed by LPDS.
Seat Belt Law: Bodnar v. Simpson
In this case the plaintiff was a passenger who sustained a right knee injury after the defendant failed to follow the right-of-way and made a left turn into the path of the car Bodnar was riding in. Simpson argued that Bodnar was partially at fault because he did not wear a seatbelt. Bodnar’s attorney asked the jury for just and reasonably compensatory damages plus medical expenses of $26,000. The jury awarded Bodnar $45,000 after a three day trial.
Seat Belt Law: Gibbons v. Zimmerman and Smith
In this wrongful death case the plaintiff’s son, an eleven year old boy, was a passenger in the back bench seating of a 1971 truck driven by Defendant Smith that had no seatbelts. The plaintiff parents were in their own vehicle driving behind Smith when Zimmerman made an illegal turn onto the freeway, colliding with Smith and causing him to brake and swerve, flipping the truck. The plaintiff’s son was ejected and killed.
The plaintiffs allege that Zimmerman was at fault for his negligent turn and Smith for his failure to brake and turn safely. Zimmerman denied liability as argued that the plaintiffs were at fault for allowing their child to ride without a seatbelt. Smith denied liability and argued that the plaintiffs assumed the risk. It was the time when they knowingly allowed their son to ride without a seatbelt. The jury, after a five day trial, found Zimmerman 100% at fault and awarded the plaintiffs $1,500,000 in damages.
Seat Belt Law: Zapata and Espinoza v. State of Arizona Dept. of Transportation and City of Coolidge
Plaintiffs were passengers escorting a prisoner in a Pinal County Ambulance, working for the Arizona Dept. of Corrections and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Dept. respectively. A tractor-trailer, driven by a non-party, went out of control and crossed the median, hitting the ambulance head on. Zapata, riding without a seatbelt, sustained serious and permanent injuries to her spine, hips, head, and eye, including brain and nerve damage. Espinoza suffered relatively mild injuries to her shoulders as well as spinal strains.
The plaintiffs argued that the City of Coolidge were negligent in failing to install a traffic light at the intersection at which the accident occurred. In turn, the city and state argued that it was the other’s responsibility and that Zapata was at fault for failing to wear a seatbelt. After a three day mediation hearing, the parties settled on the terms of $2,950,000 to Zapata and $50,000 to Espinoza from the State and undisclosed amounts from the City of Coolidge.
Seat Belt Law: Rusch v. Arizona Checker Leasing Corporation and Owen
Rusch was injured when Owen, in his capacity as a taxi driver for Arizona Checker Leasing Co., made an improper lane change and was involved in a collision. She was thrown from the back seat, and the defendants argue comparative fault because Rusch was not wearing a seatbelt. Rusch sustained injuries to her knees during the accident. After hearing from expert witnesses during a three day trial, the jury awarded plaintiff $10,236 and found her 20% at fault, reducing the award to $8,188.80.
Seat Belt Law: Pender v. Slade and Wilkonson
Plaintiff, a 16 year old girl, was injured in a collision with defendant. She claimed that she had been adjusting her seatbelt when the accident occurred. She called an accident reconstruction specialist who supported that testimony. Pender suffered mild cranial damage and spine and shoulder injuries from the crash. The defendants argued that had she been wearing a seatbelt she would have merely suffered a few sprains. The defendant stipulated to 50% liability each, and the jury found for the plaintiff, awarding $40,000. The jury found the plaintiff 10% at fault, but by stipulation, this application took place only at $20,000 of the award. Plaintiff won $38,000.
Seat Belt Law: Whitaker v. Gabriel
Personal injury case where plaintiff was struck by defendant’s vehicle while defendant was pulling back onto street from the shoulder. The defendant admitted fault, but claimed contributory negligence because the plaintiff was not wearing a seatbelt. The plaintiff suffered injuries to his back and knee. The jury awarded the plaintiff $19,325.19, finding the defendant 100% at fault.
Seat Belt Law: Buelna v. Smith
Plaintiff Buelna was a passenger in a vehicle andthe non party drove the vehicle to the case. The non-party driver executed a left turn in front of the defendant, who Buelna claims ran the red light. Defendant claimed that light was yellow and further than Buelna was comparatively at fault for failure to wear a seatbelt. The jury awarded $20,650 in damages, finding the defendant 56% at fault and Buelna 12%. The non-party driver was 32% at fault. Award of $11,564 to the plaintiff.
Wearing a seatbelt is required by law, and failure do so is negligence, but as this far from exhaustive list shows, failure to wear a seatbelt is no bar from recovering damages, particularly for passengers, minors, or others that are impaired. The seatbelt defense can result in a lower take of the full award, but many juries will find that passengers and children do not share much of the fault of their accidents and even drivers that don’t wear a seatbelt or otherwise assume the risk of doing so may recover substantial rewards as compensation for their injuries.