Is it time for Missouri Court’s to tighten the belts on the seatbelt law?

by | November, 2023 | Legal News

“[B]uckling up is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash.” The United States Department of Transportation, NHTSA Releases 2020 Traffic Crash Data, March 2, 2022, NHTSA Releases 2020 Traffic Crash Fatality Data | FARS | NHTSA. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found that 80% of Missourians […]

“[B]uckling up is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash.” The United States Department of Transportation, NHTSA Releases 2020 Traffic Crash Data, March 2, 2022, NHTSA Releases 2020 Traffic Crash Fatality Data | FARS | NHTSA. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found that 80% of Missourians report always wearing a seatbelt. Buckle Up: Restraint Use, Missouri, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Buckle Up: Restraint Use Missouri (cdc.gov). But despite such an easy tool at the hands of an occupant to prevent injury to himself or herself, Missouri law precludes a jury from evaluating whether an occupant was negligent in failing to wear a seatbelt and whether such negligence contributed to their alleged injuries through a comparative fault defense.  Rather, Missouri law limits a front seat passenger to 1% for failure to mitigate for making a conscious decision to not wear a seatbelt to protect oneself.

But should the failure to wear a seatbelt be a matter of comparative fault rather than mitigation of damages?  A comparative fault instruction is submitted to the jury when “there is evidence for which a jury could find that plaintiff’s conduct was a contributing cause of her damages.” Gustafson v. Benda, 661 S.W.2d 11, 15 (Mo. banc 1983); Thompson v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 207 S.W.3d 76, 123 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006) (citing Rudin v. Parkway Sch. Dist., 30 S.W.3d 838, 841 (Mo. App. E.D. 2000). The mitigation of damages defense bars recovery as to damages “which could have been avoided if reasonable precautions, reasonably known to the injured party, were exercised.” Id. (citing Fletcher v. City of Independence, 708 S.W.2d 158, 175 (Mo.App.1986). Injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident are both caused by not wearing a seatbelt and could be prevented by wearing a seatbelt and are, therefore, issues for submission to a jury based upon comparative fault and the failure to mitigate damages. However, RSMo § 307.178 prevents evidence of the failure to wear a seatbelt as evidence of comparative fault and, instead, can only be evidence of the failure to mitigate damages through a reduction of 1% of the damages awarded to a plaintiff.

RSMo § 307.178 requires drivers and front seat passengers of a car manufactured after January 1, 1968, to wear a properly adjusted and fastened safety belt. This statute creates a statutory duty for a driver and front seat passenger to wear a seatbelt, but section 4 of RSMo § 307.178 prevents such a failure to be evidence of comparative fault. Instead, the failure to wear a seatbelt can only be evidence of a plaintiff’s failure to mitigate their damages if an expert proves such a failure contributed to their claimed injuries. And even then, plaintiff’s recovery can only be reduced by an amount not to exceed one percent of the damages awarded after any reductions for comparative fault.

In today’s climate where wearing a seatbelt is so common, the time is right for Missouri’s legislature to amend RSMo § 307.178 such that a jury can evaluate whether an occupant’s failure to wear a seatbelt is evidence of comparative fault; moreover, it is time to remove the 1% cap on a reduction of damages. It is also time for Missouri’s judiciary should find a common law duty to wear a seatbelt, and if it were to do so, the current version of RSMo § 307.178 could be considered unconstitutional because it invades a defendant’s right to a jury trial under Article 1, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution.

Prior to the initial enactment of RSMo § 307.178, Missouri did not recognize the duty for an occupant to wear a seatbelt. In Miller v. Haynes, a jury verdict was awarded in plaintiff’s favor, and on appeal, defendant argued it should have been allowed to inquire as to whether plaintiff was wearing a seatbelt for purposes of establishing lack of due care by the plaintiff. Miller v. Haynes, 454 S.W.2d 293, 293-94 (Mo. App. 1970). The court found it to be a matter of first impression and looked to the Michigan case Romankewiz v. Black, which was found to be analogous to the law in Missouri because, like Missouri, at that time Michigan’s statute did not impose a duty to wear a seat belt or a penalty for failing to do so. Id. The court found, as a matter of law, that evidence of the failure to use a seat belt was inadmissible to show Mrs. Miller’s lack of due care because “it cannot be said that at any point an accident is so likely to occur that each and every time one gets into an automobile, he must be held to have assumed the risk of injury by not wearing a seat belt.” Id. However, Romankewiz has been overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court, and Michigan now finds the existence of a common-law seat belt defense. In other words, Michigan woke up to enter the 21st Century.

After Romankewiz, the Michigan legislature enacted M.C.L. § 257.710 which allowed evidence of the failure to wear a seat belt but capped the amount of comparative failure to five percent. The Supreme Court of Michigan, after Romankewiz, but before the enactment of M.C.L. § 257.710e(3), created a common-law seat belt defense in Lowe v. Estate Motors Ltd.,. Mann, 254 Mich.App. 86, 657 N.W.2d 517 (Mich. App. 2002). In Lowe, the Michigan Supreme Court rationalized, “[i]t is, of course, indisputable that, pursuant to the law of comparative negligence, every person has an obligation to exercise reasonable care for his own safety.” Lowe v. Estate Motors Limited, 428 Mich. 439, 410 N.W.2d 706, 713 (1987). Further, the Court found whether the “failure to use a seat belt constitutes comparative negligence to require the proportionate reduction of a plaintiff’s recovery is an evaluative issue appropriately within the province of the jury.” Id. at 715-16.

Currently, Missouri does not recognize a common law duty to wear a seatbelt. But as the Lowe court held, every person has an obligation to exercise reasonable care for his safety, including wearing a seatbelt. Missouri should recognize that it is not only Michigan citizens that should exercise reasonable care for their own safety, but also Missouri citizens.

If Missouri’s judiciary found a common law duty to wear a seatbelt, the 1% cap for reduction of damages pursuant to RSMo. § 307.178(4), could be considered unconstitutional because it violates the right to a trial by jury in that it precludes a jury from evaluating fault that is guaranteed at common law. Article 1, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution, provides “the right of a trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate.” The Missouri Supreme Court interprets this provision to mean the right to a jury trial is “beyond the reach of hostile legislation and [is] preserved” as it existed at common law before the state’s constitution’s first adoption in 1820. Id. (citing State ex rel. St. Louis, Keokuk & Nw. Ry. Co. v. Withrow, 133 Mo. 500, 36 S.W. 43, 48 (1896). Specifically, “the right to a jury trial attaches if the claim being asserted is “analogous to” actions existing at common law prior to 1820 that carried the right to a jury trial.” Dodson v. Ferrar, 491 S.W.3d 542, 555 (Mo. banc 2016). “Actions that carried the right to a jury trial at common law were civil actions for damages.” Id.

The Missouri Supreme Court has held the right to a trial by jury is violated when legislation invades a cause of action that attaches to common law. Dodson v. Ferrara, 491 S.W.3d 542, 554 (Mo. banc 2016). In Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, the Court held Mo. Rev. Stat. § 538.210, was unconstitutional because it mandated caps on non-economic damages for a judgment involving malpractice. Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, 376 S.W.3d 633, 636 (Mo. banc 2012). The Court found the caps on damages infringed on the jury’s constitutionally protected purpose of determining the amount of damages sustained by an injured party.” Id. “…the assessment of damages is one of the factual findings assigned to the jury rather than to a judge, any limit on damages that restricts the jury’s fact-finding role violates the constitutional right to trial by jury.” Id. at 640. The Court rationalized “[s]uch a limitation was not permitted at common law when Missouri’s constitution was adopted in 1820 and, therefore, violates the right to a trial by jury guaranteed by article I, section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution. Id.

Applying the two-step method used by the Missouri Supreme Court to RSMo. § 307.178, a claim of negligence existed prior to 1820, and RSMo § 307.178 acts as a cap on a percentage of fault and further requires a court to diminish the percentage a jury finds plaintiff at fault. If a common law duty to wear a seatbelt is found, RSMo. § 307.178(4) would be unconstitutional because it violates a defendant’s right to a jury trial insofar as it precludes a jury from evaluating the fault of an occupant in failing to wear a seatbelt.

We are now at a time when wearing a seatbelt is so ingrained in us that failing to do so is a failure to act with due care. A vast number of Missourians recognize that wearing a seatbelt prevents injuries because 80% of Missourians report wearing a seatbelt. Buckle Up: Restraint Use, Missouri, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Buckle Up: Restraint Use Missouri (cdc.gov). More than half of teens and adults who died in automobile crashes in 2018 were not wearing a seatbelt. Seat Belts: Get the Facts, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Seat Belts: Get the Facts | Transportation Safety | Injury Center | CDC. The CDC reports that “seat belt use is one of the most effective ways to save lives and reduce injuries in crashes.” The decision of an occupant in a vehicle to wear a seatbelt is a choice just as it is a choice in any other case for whether an individual exercises due care, and it is, therefore, time that Missouri’s judiciary recognizes a common law duty to wear a seat belt.