In a divided opinion for Mendoza v. WIS Int’l, Inc., the court sided with car accident defendants in finding the state’s restriction on the seat belt defense is unconstitutional. Specifically, the court ruled that the law, codified in Arkansas Code 27-37-703, violates the separation of powers provision of the state’s constitution.
Two justices dissented on the matter, finding the majority’s conclusion “inherently flawed.”
Whether this will have an impact on the direction sister courts take with this remains to be seen. Arkansas had been one of 31 states that outright rejected the seat belt defense, which allows a person’s non-use of a seat belt to be raised as an issue of comparative fault in a civil action, which means a claim for damages can either be diminished or eliminated. North Carolina and South Carolina also expressly reject the seat belt defense.
The idea behind the seat belt defense is that a person who chooses to disregard the law and not wear a seat belt has engaged in a “failure to mitigate damages.” That is, we all have a responsibility to protect ourselves from foreseeable harm, even when that harm is perpetuated by another. When we’re on the road, we can anticipate that other drivers may operate their vehicles carelessly or recklessly and use of a seat belt is not only the law, it’s been shown to reduce the chances of serious injury.
However, states that reject the defense take the position that injured persons shouldn’t be taken to task for someone else’s wrongdoing.
In the Mendoza case, plaintiff was a passenger in the back seat of a vehicle operated by another person when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. As a result, driver ran into the back of a parked excavator.
Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the driver and his employer, alleging he was working at the time of the crash and was negligent in causing her significant and permanent personal injuries. She had not been wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. The law in Arkansas clearly states a person’s non-use of a seat belt can be used as a defense in a civil action.
Nonetheless, defendants filed a response pleading the affirmative defense of comparative fault, alleging plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt contributed to the severity of her injuries. Defendants then filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the state’s rejection of the seat belt defense. They argued the law limits and/or dictates what is admissible evidence at trial, which is a violation of the separation of government body powers and is thus unconstitutional. Legislators can’t impose rules of evidence, they argued.
The Arkansas Supreme Court, granting review of that motion, agreed, finding the seat belt statute is procedural, and therefore violates the separation of powers clause of the state constitution.
Two dissenting justices called this legal reasoning “inherently flawed.”
Whether a reversal of the seat belt defense is on the horizon for North Carolina or South Carolina remains to be seen. There are no pending cases before the high court on this issue. However, this ruling could prompt additional challenges in other state supreme courts with similar statutes.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Mendoza v. WIS Int’l, Inc., April 14, 2016, Arkansas Supreme Court
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