Thursday, February 5, 2009
Buckle Up: Georgia To Consider Bill Permitting Admission Of Evidence of Seatbelt Nonuse In Car Accident Cases
Like similar laws in many states, OCGA Section40-8-76.1(d), precludes the admission of evidence of a driver's failure to wear a seatbelt as evidence of negligence or causation. According to OCGA Section40-8-76.1(d),
"The failure of an occupant of a motor vehicle to wear a seat safety belt in any seat of a motor vehicle which has a seat safety belt or belts shall not be considered evidence of negligence or causation, shall not otherwise be considered by the finder of fact on any question of liability of any person, corporation, or insurer, shall not be any basis for cancellation of coverage or increase in insurance rates, and shall not be evidence used to diminish any recovery for damages arising out of the ownership, maintenance, occupancy, or operation of a motor vehicle."
The Supreme Court of Georgia explained the reason behind this law in finding OCGA Section40-8-76.1(d) to be constitutional in C.W. Matthews Contracting Co., Inc. v. Gover, 428 S.E.2d 796 (Ga. 1993). In Gover,
"Linda Gover was injured when the vehicle she was driving collided with another vehicle in the vicinity of appellant's construction site. As the result of the collision, Gover, then seven-months pregnant, underwent an emergency cesarean operation and gave birth to appellee, Trent Gover, who suffer[ed] from brain damage. Appellees filed suit against appellant and the driver of the other vehicle, alleging, in part, that the negligence of appellant's employees in attempting to direct traffic around the construction site resulted in the collision which caused their injuries. The parties...stipulated that Linda Gover was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the collision."
But while the parties so stipulated, Gover moved to have this evidence precluded at trial pursuant to OCGA Section40-8-76.1(d), and C.W. Matthews countered that the law was unconstitutional. The Georgia Supremes disagreed, concluding that "the legislature may ensure that those who cause vehicular collisions are not permitted to escape liability by raising the defense that the injured party was not wearing a seat belt."
But now, what the legislature gaveth, it may taketh away. A state Senate committee is scheduled to consider a bill today that would allow for the admissibility of evidence of seat belt (non)use in legal proceedings. The bill is sponsored by Senator Lee Hawkins, who has claimed that it is absurd that this evidence is inadmissible whereas, "If a person is caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that's admissible." In support of the bill, Hawkins noted that "of the 12 traffic-related deaths in Hall County last year, 11 were not wearing seat belts."Hawkins' bill has been endorsed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which argued in a statement that:
"Simply allowing for the admissibility of seat belt use evidence does nothing to relieve a defendant of the ultimate responsibility for a vehicle accident; it simply allows a judge or jury to consider whether that evidence contributed to injuries or costs and make a decision that considers all the facts."
It will be interesting to see how this goes. Personally, I don't think that I have enough in the way of empirical data or jury studies to be able to conclude whether this evidence should generally be admitted or excluded. What do readers think?