Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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Some states will accept a seat belt defense made to limit damages awarded in a car accident claim. This means that if you are injured in a car accident while not wearing a seat belt, your recoverable damages may be reduced, even if the car accident was entirely the other party’s fault.

Damages Reduced by a Seat Belt Defense

The seat belt defense may apply to damages sought by either the driver or the passengers. This defense is related to a state’s system for determining whose fault the injury was during the lawsuit. For example, if you are rear-ended and your head hits the windshield, the fault for this sort of accident would generally be placed completely on the party that rear-ended you. However, if it is discovered that you were not wearing your seat belt at the time of the accident, the jury will take this into consideration when determining the total damages. The result is usually a reduction in recovered damages.

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States Allowing the Seat Belt Defense to a Car Accident Claim

Because the seat belt defense is controversial, a majority of states do not allow the use of the seat belt defense. While these states still use the existence of seat belt laws, comparative negligence, and other legal ways to determine the cause of the accident when determining liability for injuries and damages, most of these states prohibit the introduction of evidence pointing to non-use of a seat belt. However, sixteen out of the fifty states do allow the seat belt defense. Within these sixteen states, the weight given to the seat belt defense to a car accident claim varies. Because the seat belt defense can sometimes seem like harsh punishment for an innocent victim of an accident, many states limit the total amount of fault that can be attributed to the plaintiff by a certain percentage, usually between 1% – 15%. See State Limits on Car Accident Damages for more.

Some states that implement the seat belt defense do not set attributable fault limits, and only allow the plaintiff to recover for the damages they would have incurred had they had their seat belt on. For example, imagine you are rear-ended and your face hits the window, breaking your nose. If you did not have your seat belt on at the time of the accident, the defense will try to show that had you had your seat belt on, your face would have not hit the window, and you would not have broken your nose. If they are successful in showing this, you will not recover damages for your broken nose.

Getting Legal Help with the Seat Belt Defense

If you were involved in a car accident in which any of the parties were not wearing their seat belts, you should contact an auto accident attorney to determine the laws in your state, and whether or not your state allows the use of the seat belt defense. To avoid the matter entirely, always wear your seat belt. Car accidents can be painful and expensive, and not wearing a seat belt will increase your chance of injury in an accident and may also decrease your recoverable damages.