Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Seat Belt Defense in Tennessee: The Cutting Edge

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Seat Belt Defense in Tennessee: The Cutting Edge

Article excerpt

The seat belt defense can be restructured within the comparative fault system to distribute equitably the costs of first and second collision injuries on the basis of their respective causes. The recent state mandatory seat belt use laws, however, have failed to accomplish this goal and the judiciary may prove to be the proper forum for resolution of the seat belt controversy. Whether by court or by state legislature, the seat belt controversy warrants a resolution.1

I. INTRODUCTION

Are you prepared to face the consequences of not wearing a seat belt when driving your car? Although this is a question you should ask yourself every time you get into your car, it often becomes much more important when you find yourself the victim in an automobile accident, seeking recovery for injuries. Failure to wear a seat belt can become one of the more complicated legal issues that arise after a traffic accident,2 and depending on your jurisdiction, your recovery as a plaintiff may be limited by evidence that you failed to buckle up.3

Part II of this Note will give the history of the seat belt defense, its evolution, the effect that mandatory seat belt laws have had on the seat belt defense, and the treatment of the seat belt defense in crashworthiness cases. In Part III, this Note will analyze the evolution of seat belt laws in Tennessee, addressing both statutory and common law treatment of seat belt issues. Part IV will address other selected states' treatment of the seat belt defense, comparing those states' treatment of the seat belt laws to Tennessee's treatment. Finally, in Part V, this Note will analyze the states' treatment of the seat belt defense issue and conclude, in Part VI, that other states should follow Tennessee's lead in recognizing that, as it relates to proximate cause, seat belt evidence should be admissible to prove that not all the injuries sustained in an automobile accident are proximately caused by the initial collision.

II. HISTORY OF THE SEAT BELT DEFENSE

The seat belt defense prevents the victim of an automobile accident from recovering for injuries that could have been avoided had that person worn his seat belt.4 The success of this defense has varied over the years, but the evolution of its applicability is attributable to changes that have occurred in tort law. For example, the shift from contributory negligence to comparative fault; mandatory seat belt laws; and the evolution of products liability claims have resulted in arguments favoring the seat belt defense that have caused this defense to change. The following discussion briefly explains the background of the seat belt defense, focusing on early seat belt laws, the effect mandatory seat belt laws have had on the seat belt defense, and how the seat belt defense is treated in crashworthiness cases.

A. Early "Seat Belt Defense" Law

In 1955, Ford and Chrysler offered lap belts as optional equipment on automobiles. In 1968, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard Number 208 required automakers to install lap belts for each occupant and shoulder harnesses for the driver and front seat passenger on all automobiles made after January, 1968.5 This change was a response to evidence that seat belts could prevent deaths and injuries from automobile accidents.6 Accordingly, state and federal requirements for seat belt installation were enacted to encourage seat belt use.7

As seat belts became a standard automotive fixture, defendants increasingly raised the seat belt defense, attempting to limit their liability because a plaintiff had failed to use his seat belt. The seat belt defense precludes an automobile accident victim from recovering for injuries that would have been prevented had he worn his seat belt. Initially, the defense gained limited acceptance. While some jurisdictions accepted the defense,8 the more prevalent judicial reaction was to reject it.9

At first, defendants attempted to use the seat belt defense as a complete bar to a plaintiff's recovery by showing that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent for not buckling up. …

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