At Michaels & Smolak, we all wear our seatbelts, everywhere, every time we are in a car, whether we ride in the back or the front. Hey, as Syracuse car accident lawyers, what would you expect? We’ve handled many cases where we believe even backseat belts have saved lives or reduced injuries. We’ve also represented families of several unrestrained backseat passengers who were killed or seriously injury and who we believe would have survived or suffered less serious injuries had they been restrained. According to AAA statistics, unrestrained rear-seat passengers involved in crashes are eight times more likely to be seriously injured and three times more likely to be killed.
So that’s why we support the new bill, likely to become law in New York, requiring backseat passengers to buckle up. The current law requires only front seat occupants to wear seatbelts, and those in the back seat who are under 16 years old.
New Yorkers will not be alone in being required to buckle up in back. Twenty-nine other States already have a buckle-up-in-back law.
The bill has already gotten through the Senate and will soon go to the Assembly for a vote. If it passes there, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is almost certain to sign it. He long ago pledged support for the bill. Incidentally, New York became the first State in the nation to require seatbelts in the front when the current Governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, signed that bill in 1984. Like father like son!
As New York car accident attorneys, this new law, if passed, may hit us in the pocket book. Safer passengers mean fewer and less serious injuries, which means lower settlements and verdicts, which means our contingency fee income is reduced. But we will be happy to make less. We HATE seeing people hurt, especially when a simple safety measure could have prevented it.
But the new law might also help us get more compensation for some of our clients. To understand how, you have to hear about a weird idiosyncrasy in New York’s current seatbelt law. Buckle up! It’s a bit complicated.
Although under present law, seatbelts are not legally “required” for backseat passengers in New York, meaning the failure to wear one is not a violation of New York’s Vehicle & Traffic Law, and no traffic ticket or fine will be issued for failure to wear one, an insurance company defending negligent drivers against injury claims by backseat passengers is allowed to assert an affirmative defense of “failure to wear an available seatbelt”.
The defense works is like this: If the insurance company can convince the jury, with medical testimony, that a backseat passenger claiming compensation for car accident injuries would likely have been less seriously injured had he been wearing a seatbelt, then the jury can reduce the verdict so that it is commensurate with compensation only for that hypothetical, less serious injury. So if the client suffered a broken arm but would have suffered only a bruised arm had he been wearing the seatbelt, he gets compensated only for the bruise. (And by the way, a “bruise” is not even enough to make out a car accident injury case in New York, but that’s a different story).
Confused? Here’s a real life example of how the New York seatbelt defense works. As car accident attorneys, we once represented a backseat passenger from the Syracuse area who became paralyzed from the waist down when the driver of his vehicle hit a tree. He was young and was entitled to a lifetime of compensation for this dreadful injury. But he had not been wearing his seatbelt. Although he was not ejected from the car, the insurance company raised the defense of failure to wear a seatbelt. They claimed that, had he been wearing the belt, he would not have fractured his lower spine, or at least not so severely, so that he would likely not have been paralyzed. They hired a medical/engineer expert to try to prove it to a jury. Just before trial, the client elected to settle for less than he otherwise would have been entitled to because he feared, rightly, that a jury might buy the insurance company’s argument. He still got millions of dollars in compensation, but had to take about half of what he would have otherwise been entitled to had he been wearing the seatbelt and still sustained the paralyzing injury.
Would the seatbelt really have prevented him from becoming paralyzed? We did not believe that. Our expert did not believe it, either. But the jury might have. And that reduced the settlement value of the case. If he had been wearing the seatbelt, and nevertheless sustained paralysis in the crash, the client would have gotten twice as much in settlement, and our contingency fee would have also been twice as large.
So you can see how this new seatbelt law, if obeyed by backseat passengers, might get more compensation to our clients in some cases, and less in others. Since we are economically “in the same boat” as the client (our fee is generally 1/3 of what we achieve for them), the new seatbelt law could hurt us or help us. The same of course is true for all car accident attorneys whether in the Syracuse area, or elsewhere in New York.
But that’s not what counts, really. What counts is that this law will make all backseat passengers SAFER. SAFETY FIRST! That’s why most car accident lawyers in New York, including us, support this new proposed law.
If you, too, support motor vehicle safety, call your State assemblyman or woman to let him or her know you support this bill.