The Use or Non-Use of Seat Belts Is Not Admissible in Texas
A. FAILURE TO USE A SEAT BELT IS NOT A BASIS FOR CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE NOR A BASIS FOR FAILURE TO MITIGATE DAMAGES
HB4 repealed Section 545.413(g) of the Texas Transportation Code, which prohibited the admission into evidence proof concerning the use or non-use of seatbelts. The Legislature did not enact a new law stating that seat belt evidence is admissible, nor did it abrogate the common law on which the Statute was based, although it had the power to do so. The Legislature just repealed the old law. The ultimate effect of the repeal of Section 545.413(g) simply returned the status of the law in Texas to the pre-statute status. As expressed in case law prior to the enactment of Section 545.413(g), the present state of Texas law is that the failure to use a seat belt is not a basis for negligence liability, nor a basis for contributory negligence, nor a basis for failure to mitigate damages.
Prior to the enactment of the seat belt law, the Texas Supreme Court held in a strikingly similar case entitled Carnation v. Wong that “persons whose negligence did not contribute to an automobile accident should not have damages awarded to them reduced or mitigated because of their failure to wear available seat belts." The result of Carnation is that the Texas Supreme Court created a rule of evidence that the Legislature later codified when it enacted Section 545.413(g) of the Texas Transporation Code.
Following the decision in Carnation and one year after the Legislature codified its decision, the Texas Supreme Court in Pool v. Ford Motor Company held the following:
We do not remand, however, the seat belt allegation for a sufficiency determination. That involves a question of law and is controlled by Carnation Co. v. Wong, 516 S.W.2d 116, 117 (Tex.1974) (per curiam), when we held that plaintiffs “should not have the damages awarded to them reduced or mitigated because of their failure to wear available seat belts." Moreover, we note that the legislature has ratified Carnation’s policy for future cases: “[u]se or non-use of a safety belt is not admissible evidence in a civil trial." Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann. art. 6701d, § 107C(j) (effective September 1, 1985). Therefore, we reaffirm that failure to wear a seat belt is not any evidence of contributory negligence.
Therefore, according to the Texas Supreme Court, the “use or non-use of a safety belt is not admissible evidence in a civil trial."
B. USE OF SEAT BELT EVIDENCE IS NOT ADMISSIBLE
The clear intent of the Legislature was that “The bill will allow evidence of the use or non-use of a seat belt to be admissible to the same extent other acts of plaintiff are admissible under the Texas Rules of Evidence." Thus, seat belt evidence is to be decided under the Rules of Evidence as interpreted by the Texas Supreme Court. The Legislature reiterated this fact when it repealed 545.413(g). Under the Rules of Evidence, a plaintiff motorist’s failure to use an available seat belt at time of collision is not relevant to liability issues involving his alleged contributory negligence.
Further, non-use of seat belts is not relevant to the mitigation or causation of damages because it is not an intervening factor (i.e., it is not a factor that comes after Defendant’s negligence). In fact, pursuant to long-standing case law, the “concept of mitigation of damages has no application to a Plaintiff’s actions which antedate Defendant’s negligence."
C. THE REPEAL OF 545.413(G) DID NOT AFFECT PRIOR CASE LAW
By repealing 545.413(g), the Texas Legislature did not abolish prior case law. Repeal of a common-law rule is disfavored. Repeals by implication are never favored, and when a later act is silent as to an older law the presumption is that its continued operation was intended, unless they present a contradiction so positive that the purpose to repeal is manifest. If the Legislature intended for the repeal of Section 545.413(g) to abolish prior case law, it would have “made its intent clear through express language." This the Legislature did not do. It is a serious matter for the Court to read into the repeal of a statute something omitted by the lawmaking body. Further, the Texas Government Code provides that the Texas Supreme Court “has the full rulemaking power in the practice and procedure in civil actions." The Texas Legislature chose to repeal Section 545.413(g) without expressly abolishing the judicially created rule announced in Carnation. Therefore, the Texas case law remains the law.
D. SEAT BELT EVIDENCE IS ADMISSIBLE FOR OTHER PURPOSES
In Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. v. Glyn-Jones, The Texas Supreme Court interpreted the seat belt law providing that the “[u]se or non-use of a safety belt is not admissible evidence in a civil trial." On its face, this language would appear to preclude an action against the manufacturers of seat belts. It is apparent from the legislative history, however, that the statute was not intended to protect seat belt manufacturers from liability for claims by plaintiffs alleging injury from defective restraint systems. Since this lawsuit does not involve a claim against a manufacturer for a defective seat belt restraint system, then the seat belt evidence is not admissible.