Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"I Was Not Wearing My Seat Belt At The Time Of The Crash--Can They Use That Against Me In My Personal Injury Claim?"

"Were you wearing your seat belt at the time of the crash?" If you are involved in an auto collision, it's a question you'll most likely be asked by the the investigating police officer, the insurance adjuster, and even your attorney.

But how does it affect your injury claim in Ohio, if at all? The answer: it depends. Ohio law is a bit quirky on this issue. We have a "seat belt" law in Ohio, but as it pertains to an auto injury claim, it is admittedly narrow:
No person shall… occupy, as a passenger, a seating position on the front seat of an automobile being operated on any street or highway unless that person is wearing all of the available elements of a properly adjusted occupant restraining device. 
Translation: Ohio law creates a duty to wear a seat belt only for passengers in the front seat of the car. Therefore, if you were an unbelted passenger in the back seat and injured in a crash, evidence of your non-use of the seat belt would be inadmissible in any claim or lawsuit you bring for your injuries. The insurance company would not be able to argue that your injuries were caused or made worse by your failure to wear a seat belt.

But what if you were an unbelted driver or front seat passenger and injured in a crash? Again, Ohio law is fairly narrow on this issue and limits what an insurance company can argue against you even if you were not wearing a seat belt. First, it cannot argue that your failure to wear a seat belt means that you were negligent. Why is this important? An overly simplistic example will illustrate the point.

Suppose you have an injury claim worth $100,000 as determined by your jury. However, they also find that you were 50% negligent in causing your own injuries. Therefore, your $100,000 damage claim is reduced by 50%, and you are left with a verdict of $50,000. In our example above, the insurance company could not argue your non- seat belt usage was negligent, in an attempt to reduce your damages.

However, it can argue that not wearing your seat belt can diminish your pain and suffering damages if not wearing a seat belt contributed to the injuries you sustained in the crash. Example: you were driving and were rear ended and smashed your head into the windshield and lost 6 teeth as a result. It is possible that you wouldn't have injured your head or lost your teeth if you were wearing your seat belt.

But here's where things get a bit more complicated: it is the insurance company's burden to prove that you would not have sustained those very same injuries if you had been wearing your seat belt. This is often difficult if not impossible to prove. A person can be wearing a seat belt and still sustain brain, head, neck, shoulder, spine, lower trunk/limb, and a whole host of other injuries due to the nature of the crash. This is particularly true in high speed crashes, intersection collisions, and other off angle crashes

In fact, studies from numerous federal government agencies, and even data from the insurance industry, show that in side impact crashes, occupants are 2-3 times more likely to sustain head, neck, and spine injuries for a simple reason: a standard 3 point harness seat belt is not nearly as effective in protecting occupants from side impacts. It is for that reason that many cars now contain side impact airbags!

So here's the bottom line: it is the insurance company's burden to show that the specific injuries you sustained would have been less or non-existent if you'd been wearing your seat belt. And in the overwhelming majority of crashes, occupants will sustain injury even if wearing a seat belt.

Does that mean you should not wear one? Hell no! In many situations, seat belts may not prevent injury, but they may save your life. One thing is for certain: if you're ejected from your vehicle, the chances of you not surviving increase astronomically. And a seat belt is your best bet to keep that from happening.

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