State Court Rules Defendants Have a Right to Raise Seat Belt Non-use as an Affirmative Defense

Earlier this month, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an opinion overruling a legislatively enacted rule that prevented defendants in personal injury cases from asserting that the accident victim’s failure to wear a seat belt at the time of the accident contributed to the cause of the victim’s injuries. In the case, Mendoza v. WIS International, Inc., the court determined that it is unconstitutional under the Arkansas Constitution to prevent a defendant in a civil case from arguing seat belt non-use at trial.

backseat-driver-1537280Importantly for Maryland plaintiffs, this is diametrically opposed to the state of the law in Maryland, where defendants are not permitted to submit evidence of an accident victim’s seat belt non-use. In other words, seat belt use has no relevance in Maryland personal injury cases.

The Facts of Mendoza

The plaintiff was injured when she was riding in the back seat of a vehicle driven by Adams. According to the court’s written opinion, Adams fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed into a parked excavator. Mendoza was not wearing her seat belt at the time of the accident.

Adams was employed by WIS International and was acting within the performance of his duties at the time of the accident. Thus, after Mendoza suffered serious injuries in the accident, she filed a personal injury lawsuit against both Adams and WIS International.

At trial, both defendants used the affirmative defense that Mendoza was contributorily negligent in not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. The defendants acknowledged that there was currently a statute preventing such a defense, but they argued that the statute was unconstitutional.

Ultimately, after much discussion, the Supreme Court of Arkansas agreed with the defendants and struck down the statute as unconstitutional under the “separation of powers” doctrine. The court determined that the seat belt non-use defense was procedural in nature, and it therefore was beyond the legislature’s power to enact. In general, legislative bodies can create substantive laws that the courts may interpret, but the procedural rules that govern the operation of courts are left to the courts themselves to promulgate.

Seat Belt Non-use in Maryland

While Maryland operates under a strict system when it comes to contributory negligence, the Maryland Legislature has specifically stated that a defendant in a civil case may not use an accident victim’s failure to wear a seatbelt as an affirmative defense. Of course, as in Arkansas, this statute is susceptible to being challenged. However, the Maryland appellate courts would be free to come to a different opinion from their counterpart in Arkansas.

Have You Been Injured in a Maryland Car Accident?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured in a Maryland car accident, you may be entitled to monetary compensation for the injuries you have sustained. As you can see, however, proving a case of negligence is not always as simple as establishing that the other party was at fault. It is very important you speak with a dedicated attorney prior to filing your case. Call 410-654-3600 to set up a free consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Pedestrian Accidents on the Rise, Maryland Car Accident Attorney Blog, published April 4, 2016.

Court Finds Landowner Had No Duty to Prevent Lessee’s Horses from Escaping Leased Property, Maryland Car Accident Attorney Blog, published March 23, 2016.

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