You can still file a car insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault driver if you’re injured in a car accident and you weren’t wearing your seatbelt. But depending on the law in your state, and the nature of your injuries, your failure to buckle up could have a big impact on the amount you will ultimately recover. Read on to learn more.
If you’re injured in a car accident, and the at-fault driver is insured, you likely have a number of options for getting compensation for your losses stemming from the crash -- including your medical bills, lost income, "pain and suffering" and other "damages."
Most car accident cases start as an insurance claim filed with the at-fault driver’s car insurance company. This is called a "third party" claim, and once you file it, a claims adjuster will conduct an investigation to determine:
At the end of the investigation, the adjuster will probably deny your claim or offer you a certain amount to settle it. This is the stage at which your failure to wear a seatbelt will likely first come into play. If the settlement offer seems unfairly low (and the adjuster points to your seatbelt law violation as one factor behind the number), you can try to negotiate a better deal yourself, or put your case in the hands of an experienced personal injury attorney who will evaluate the situation and your options, including taking the matter to court via a personal injury lawsuit.
Regardless of which route you choose, your failure to wear a seatbelt may prevent you from receiving a better financial outcome -- either through an out-of-court settlement or by way of a court judgment in the rare event that your lawsuit goes to trial -- because of a legal concept often called the "seatbelt defense."
The "seatbelt defense" refers to the insurance company’s (or the defendant’s, if you’ve filed a lawsuit in court) use of evidence regarding your failure to wear a seatbelt in connection with the underlying accident. The theory behind the seatbelt defense is that, even though you may not have caused the accident itself, your failure to wear a seatbelt contributed to the severity of your car accident injuries.
Not all states allow use of the seatbelt defense, and keep in mind that even in states that do allow it, the adjuster is not required to apply it when negotiating a settlement. But the seatbelt defense will certainly be on the mind of the adjuster. That’s because if the claim can’t be settled and a lawsuit is filed, the adjuster knows that use of the seatbelt defense will be allowed by the court, and will impact how much the insurance company may ultimately have to pay.
The seatbelt defense overlaps with two additional legal concepts: the "comparative fault” and "mitigation.” (Note: The precise interplay among these concepts depends on the state where the accident occurred.)
Under comparative fault, the amount you can recover for your injuries is reduced by a percentage that reflects your degree of fault for failing to wear a seatbelt. There are two types of comparative fault: "pure comparative fault" and "modified comparative fault."
In states that follow the "pure" comparative fault rule, each party is responsible for their percentage of fault -- no matter what that percentage may be. For example, let’s say your injuries are found to be almost entirely due to your failure to wear a seatbelt. You’re deemed 95% at fault, and the other driver is considered 5% at fault. In that situation, in a "pure" comparative fault state you can recover only 5% of your damages. Under "modified" comparative fault, each party is still responsible for damages in proportion to their own share of fault. but if your share of liability reaches a certain designated percentage (50% or 51% depending on the state), you cannot recover any compensation at all from any other at-fault party.
(Note: A few states follow a much harsher rule known as "contributory negligence." In these states, an injured person's own negligence -- even the slightest amount -- negates their right to recover anything at all from other at-fault parties. But in these states, a car accident claimant's failure to wear a seatbelt usually can't be used as evidence of negligence.)
Learn more about comparative and contributory negligence in car accident cases.
In some states, including Wisconsin and Iowa, the seatbelt defense overlaps with the "mitigation" theory, which says that an injured person has a legal duty to use reasonable efforts to avoid or reduce his or her “damages.” Under this theory, the at-fault driver’s insurer (or attorney) would argue that you wouldn’t have suffered the same injuries if you had worn your seatbelt, and so your financial recovery should be reduced.
Regardless of the legal theory that is relied upon, most states require that the at-fault driver prove a causal connection between your non-use of an available seatbelt and the injuries you suffered. It’s no surprise that cases involving the seatbelt defense often require a close examination of the medical records and the use of expert witnesses.
As mentioned above, some states do not allow use of the seatbelt defense. In these states, your failure to wear a seatbelt can’t be used as evidence of your negligence, and will not impact your financial recovery. Other states limit the financial consequences of not wearing a seatbelt if a personal injury lawsuit is filed. For example, in Wisconsin, an at-fault driver is entitled to assert the seatbelt defense, but it can only be used to reduce the plaintiff’s damages award by 15%.
Fighting a “Seatbelt Defense” Argument
If your state allows the at-fault driver to argue that your failure to wear a seatbelt makes you at least partially to blame for your car accident injuries, trying to overcome that argument on your own may not be your best strategy. Especially if your injuries are significant and the other side is digging in for a fight, it may be time to put your claim in the hands of an experienced car accident attorney.