Expect insurers, trial lawyers to battle over proposed state seat belt rules

Georgia legislators are proposing a law would hike fines on a driver with unbuckled passengers, up to $125 if a child in the back seat is too old for a car seat. Pixabay

A state Senate study committee that wants to require everyone in a car to buckle up is also recommending a new law to allow seat belt use to be presented as evidence in an injury court case.

The debate over the seat belt evidence ban pits trial lawyers and crash victims suing for compensation for their injuries against car insurance companies facing large damage awards. Business interests hold that big jury awards contribute to higher car insurance premiums for Georgia drivers.

Last month, lawmakers in a Georgia Senate study committee called for changing state law to allow evidence of seat-belt use in court. The committee’s other key recommendation is to require all back-seat passengers to wear seat belts, not just those under 17.

Businesses that oppose the evidence ban include insurers and trucking companies that say it drives up auto insurance premiums through hefty court judgments. Those awards contribute to higher premiums for local businesses dependent on transportation, said Nathan Humphrey, Georgia State director of the nonprofit National Federation of Independent Business.

Removing the gag on seat-belt evidence will provide more informed court deliberations, said Ed Crowell, president and CEO of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association.

“Anything that is relevant to the accident really should be admissible,” Crowell said. “The idea that you can’t give juries all the facts and let them sort through it, it’s weird.”

Georgia is one of 30 states where insurers sued by crash victims cannot show evidence that they were unbuckled. That’s been true since the state’s first mandatory seat-belt law took effect in 1988 for drivers and front-seat passengers.

The ban against evidence that an injured person in a vehicle failed to buckle up dates back decades to a time when seat-belt safety was less expected, even after nearly all states required drivers and front-seat passengers to use them. A few years ago, Texas’ Supreme Court declared the seat belt evidence ban “an anachronism,” sparking a national conversation about the laws.

Trial lawyers seem likely to oppose state legislation that would lift the seat belt evidence ban and to argue it will put an unfair burden on people who have been injured. For example, crash victims might be forced to pay for expert witnesses and evidence discovery to disprove an insurer’s claim they were unbelted, said Jon Pope, a Gainesville attorney and Georgia Trial Lawyers Association executive vice president. State lawmakers should increase Georgia’s $15 fine for not wearing a seat belt to increase compliance, he said.

“It would be a disaster,” Pope said. “The allegation of the victim non-usage would be made in virtually every case.”

Georgia is a top state for seat belt use with 97 percent of drivers buckling up in 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Georgia is one of 34 states that allow law enforcement to pull over a driver if they spot someone in the front seat unbuckled. Forty-nine states require seat belts and Georgia is one of 29 that bar seat belt use as evidence in a lawsuit, according to the NHTSA.

Ending the evidence ban might scare off crash victims suing for compensation if they think the costs to win in court might outweigh potential gains, said Frank Vandall, an Emory University law professor who specializes in tort and product liability law. It might also embolden insurers to approve fewer claims, Vandall said.

“You’re really protecting the insurance companies because they have to pay for the liability,” Vandall said. “All it does is keep more money that you pay with the insurance companies.”

Legislation to lift the evidence ban stalled at the gate last year and sponsor state Rep. Todd Jones says he aims to give it another push in the 2020 session.

The Forsyth County Republican said he might change his bill to allow seat-belt evidence only in product-liability civil cases. He said he’s sensitive to concerns the cost for crash victims to prove they wore seat belts is a roadblock to court access for low-income earners.

“Your lack of usage should be a material piece of evidence for the jury to consider,” Jones said. “The question is how do we make it fairer?”

Tuesday, a separate Senate study committee that recommends sweeping legal liability legislation also said the state should allow seat-belt evidence.

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.