Seat belt defense rejected in rollover accident case

On January 30, 2013, the Texas Court of Appeals, El Paso, rejected the seat belt defense in Nabors Wells Services, Ltd. v. Romero, holding that expert and lay testimony regarding use or non-use of seat belts in a rollover motor vehicle accident is not admissible. Under the seat belt defense, the jury may reduce the amount of damages to be awarded to a victim in a motor vehicle accident if the individual failed to properly use a seat belt. The reduced damages are calculated based upon any injuries that could have been prevented by use of a seat belt. According to, 16 states currently allow the seat belt defense: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

In the Nabors case, the driver was driving a Chevrolet Suburban on a highway in rural West Texas, with seven family members riding as passengers. At least five of the passengers were minors between the ages of four and 15. A Nabors employee was driving a company tractor trailer close ahead in the same direction. Just as the Suburban was overtaking the truck, but before it passed clear, the Nabors employee turned the tractor trailer left to exit the highway in an attempt to enter an oilfield road. The tractor trailer's front left bumper struck the Suburban as it passed. The collision caused the Suburban to go into a side skid off the highway, rolling over several times. There was conflicting evidence regarding who was wearing seat belts at the time of the collision. Most of the Suburban's occupants were ejected. One passenger was killed in the accident, and the driver and all of the other passengers were injured.

The surviving family members brought suit against Nabors for negligence and vicarious liability. Nabors sought to introduce both lay and expert testimony at trial regarding the use or non-use of seat belts in a rollover crash. The plaintiffs objected on the ground that such evidence was inadmissible in civil trials in Texas. The trial court sustained the objection. The jury returned a verdict which found Nabors and Martin Soto both negligent, 51 percent and 49 percent at fault, respectively. The jury awarded actual damages to the plaintiffs in excess of $2.3 million.

Nabors contended that, due to a legislative repeal in 2003 of two statutory provisions which expressly barred evidence of seat belt use/nonuse in civil cases, current law no longer bars such evidence. The Court of Appeals rejected this assertion, finding that, regardless of the repeal of the statutory provisions, Texas case law still provided binding precedent for rejecting the seat belt defense. Texas common-law decisions reject the seat belt defense on two grounds: first, the use or non-use of a seat belt did not make the collision more or less likely, and, therefore, did not meet the legal requirements for contributory negligence; and, second, non-use of a seat belt cannot be a failure to mitigate damages because the injured party cannot reduce his or her damages before they occur, and the act of using or not using the seat belt does not come between the act of negligence and the resulting damages.

Motor vehicle accident cases often complex matters, and it is extremely important for individuals who have sustained injuries of this nature to seek the advice of an experienced attorney in order to protect their legal rights and those of their loved ones.