Numerous factors determine wrongful death liability and eligibility to file a claim following a fatal car accident, but the fact that your loved one wasn’t wearing a seat belt will not automatically bar you from eligibility.
Seat Belt Usage & Comparative Negligence
With a personal injury or wrongful death claim, the other side can attempt to argue that your loved one was partly at fault for the accident and/or injuries. If they can successfully prove that your loved one was partly to blame, your settlement will be reduced by your degree of fault. This is called comparative negligence.
Some states allow one party to use the other party’s lack of seat belt usage to deflect some of the fault under comparative negligence, and therefore reduce liability. Indiana is not one of those states. While it is illegal to not wear a seat belt in Indiana (IC § 9-19-10-2), the law doesn’t allow the seat belt defense to be used to mitigate damages for personal injury or wrongful death cases.
Indiana Law Regarding Seat belts and Wrongful Death Claims
Indiana has a statue that specifically prohibits using “failure to wear a seat belt” as a defense for the purpose of demonstrating fault or deflecting damages. IC § 9-19-10-7(b) reads: “evidence of the failure to comply with [seat belt laws] may not be admitted in a civil action to mitigate damages.”
There’re a few cases that demonstrate the court’s decision to not allow seat belt usage as a defense:
- Hopper v. Carey – A man and his son were injured when the fire truck in which they were traveling overturned, in part because the road’s recent repavement. They sued the paving company and the paving company tried to reduce their fault by claiming the men weren’t wearing their seat belts. The court’s decision stated: “In conclusion, we hold that the seat belt defense is not admissible to demonstrate fault under the common law defense of contributory negligence or the Indiana Comparative Fault Act.
- Burge v. Teter – Five members of the Teter family were injured in a car accident due to another driver’s negligence. He tried to use the seat belt defense because a couple of the children weren’t wearing proper child safety restraints. The court ruled that “the failure of a party to wear a seat belt or use a child restraint system does not constitute fault nor can it be utilized to reduce damages.” The Teter family won the judgment.
There’s an Exception to the Rule
However, the next section of the statutes, IC § 9-19-10-7(c), explains one exception to the rule. If it’s a product liability case, then the other party can use the seat belt defense. This is essentially because the party can say that because the victim didn’t use the safety features appropriately, the manufacturer shouldn’t be held liable for all of the damages.
Determine Your Legal Options with a Lawyer
So, while the fact that your loved one wasn’t wearing a seat belt normally won’t rule out a valid wrongful death claim, it still might be a factor if your case involved product liability.
These are complicated areas of the law so seek out an attorney’s help to pursue a claim. If you’re looking for counsel in or near Indianapolis, contact Hensley Legal Group. Call us today for a FREE, no-obligation legal consultation at (317) 372-3333.