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Derheim v. N. Fiorito Co

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff suffered injuries when his car collided with Defendant’s truck after Defendant made an illegal left turn. The trial court refused to allow Defendant to use the seatbelt defense, which would have reduced Plaintiff’s damage award.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The failure of a plaintiff to wear a seat belt does not limit an award for damages when the defendant is held to be negligent.

    Facts. Defendant made a left turn in violation of the rules of the road. Plaintiff’s car collided with Defendant’s truck. Plaintiff was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the collision. At trial, Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s failure to wear a seatbelt was a form of contributory negligence (the so-called “seatbelt defense”). The trial judge refused to allow Defendant to amend his answer to raise the seatbelt defense. The trial judge also refused to allow Defendant’s expert to testify that if Plaintiff had warn his seatbelt, he would not have suffered injuries. The trial court returned a verdict for Plaintiff. Defendant appealed.

    Issue. Does Plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat-belt limit a recovery for damages in an action for negligence?

    Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
    * Courts have been inconsistent in their application of the “seatbelt” defense. The defense does not fit into the familiar doctrines of contributory negligence, assumption of risk, or avoidable consequences. The failure to use a seatbelt occurs before defendant’s negligence, as opposed to contributory negligence, which is conduct contributing to the accident itself.
    * Contributory negligence is an affirmative defense and a complete bar to Plaintiff’s recovery. It would be unjust to bar Plaintiff’s recovery when the failure to wear a seatbelt does not bear on the cause of the accident itself. The same reasoning applies to the doctrine of assumption of risk. Under the doctrine of assumption of risk, one who ventures upon the highway without buckling up is voluntarily assuming the risk of more serious injuries resulting from a possible accident proximately caused by the negligence of another.
    * The doctrine of avoidable consequences is akin to the concept of mitigation of damages. It applies when Plaintiff’s conduct after the occurrence fails to meet the standards of due care. In any case, Defendant takes the Plaintiff as he finds him.
    * The concern is that if the seatbelt defense is allowed, then similar defenses will be allowed for other safety devices equipped in automobiles. This would unduly lengthen trials and provide a battleground for safety experts, as well as medical experts. The time and expense of litigation would be increased.
    * The cases that reject the “seatbelt” defense are the better-reasoned cases. It is extremely unfair to mitigate the damages of one who sustains those damages in an accident for which he was in no way responsible.
    * There is no statutory duty in this jurisdiction to wear a seatbelt.

    Discussion. The court pointed to the fact that wearing a seatbelt will not prevent the accident itself from occurring. The seatbelt defense is inherently different from contributory negligence. Furthermore, it is unjust to bar Plaintiff’s recovery when Plaintiff did nothing to cause the accident itself. Pay attention to the fact that in this jurisdiction, wearing a seatbelt is not required by statute in 1972.



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