We got a very large settlement ($7.5 Million) last year for a young man involved in an automobile accident in Cayuga County, near Auburn. The young man had gone out to a bar in Skaneateles with some friends. On their way home, the driver, who was somewhat intoxicated, lost control of the car on snow and ice and crashed into a tree. Our client, who was in the backseat and not wearing his seatbelt, suffered permanent paralysis.
Some of our friends were surprised we got so much since our client was not wearing his seatbelt. They said, “Isn’t a passenger required in New York to wear a seatbelt? If he wasn’t doing what the law required, why was he entitled to so much for his injuries?”
Whether a passenger is in the front seat or the back seat of a car, the defendant of the lawsuit has a right to argue, as a defense to the case, that the passenger could have “mitigated his or her damages” (legalese for “could have avoided getting injured so badly”) if he or she had been wearing a seatbelt.
This is called the “seatbelt defense”. While failure to wear a seatbelt is not a total “bar” to your case (you can still sue), it can reduce your DAMAGES, that is, the AMOUNT OF COMPENSATION you get for your injuries.
Here’s a concrete example of how the “seatbelt defense” works in New York: Let’s say you are in the backseat, not wearing your seatbelt, and your driver blows a red light and crashes into another car, which sends your face flying into the back of the seat in front of you. You fracture your nose so badly it looks like a caricature of a Picasso painting. If you had been wearing your seatbelt, would you have broken your nose? If not, would your injuries have been LESS severe? If the answer to first question is “no”, and the answer to the second question is “yes”, and the defendant can prove this at trial, then you will NOT be compensated for a broken nose, but rather for the lesser injuries you would have suffered had you been wearing your seatbelt.
So what about the paralyzed guy who wasn’t wearing his seatbelt? How did we get so much for him even though it was “his fault” for not wearing his seatbelt? Simple: We hired a good seatbelt expert who was prepared to testify that our client would have been paralyzed regardless of whether he was wearing a seatbelt. We convinced the insurance company that the jury would likely believe our expert. The defendant has the burden of proving the “seatbelt defense”, and the insurance company was, apparently, not sure it could do that with its own expert.
By the way, the New York Vehicle & Traffic Law requires only front seat adult passengers to wear a seatbelt, while backseat adult passengers are free to go without. But even so, if you are injured, and sue for damages, the “seatbelt defense” applies.
Moral of the story? Wear your seatbelt, both in the front and back of a car!