The common law seat belt defense is now used to demonstrate a plaintiff’s comparative negligence rather than to mitigate his damages. Florida law was not always this clear.
In Ridley v. Safety Kleen Corporation, the Florida Supreme Court recognized that “there has been some confusion and misunderstanding as to the nature of the so-called seat belt defense and confusion as to the actions of this Court and the legislature on this issue.” 693 So. 2d 934 (Fla. 1996). In order to simplify resolution of the issue of whether a person’s failure to use a seat belt contributed to his injuries, the court held that the failure to use a seat belt would henceforth be raised by an affirmative defense of comparative negligence. Accordingly, the standard jury instruction 6.14 should no longer be used because: 1) there is no longer any exception as to whether the vehicle was equipped with an available and fully operational seat belt; and 2) the failure to use a seat belt will no longer be conceptualized as a mitigation of damages issue. Rather, the courts should give Std. Jury Instr. 3.8(a) regarding comparative negligence, 4.11 regarding violation of a traffic regulation as evidence of negligence, and 6.1(c) when there is an issue of comparative negligence.
The court also analyzed the customary practice of reducing the plaintiff’s award in two steps. The first step was to reduce the award by the percentage of the plaintiff’s comparative fault and the second step reduced further the already reduced award by deducting the percentage of the plaintiff’s damages that were caused by the failure to wear a seat belt. The Ridley court held that this practice was unacceptable because it is inconsistent with §768.81(2) and the court’s holding that the seat belt was to be included in the affirmative defense of comparative negligence. Although the failure to wear a seat belt may be evidence of negligence and a plaintiff may also be found comparatively negligent if he was partially at fault in causing the accident, the court found no reason to treat these two examples of comparative negligence separately on the verdict form. The court then explained how the defense would be considered by the jury and how the damages would be calculated as follows:
According to § 768.81(2), the percentage of plaintiff’s damages that is attributable to plaintiff’s negligent conduct (i.e., plaintiff’s total comparative negligence) should be used to proportionately reduce the plaintiff’s recovery. This single percentage should also be reflected only once on the verdict form. The jury should consider both the plaintiff’s negligence in operating the vehicle and the failure to use a seat belt, if applicable, when calculating this percentage. Accordingly, when the jury is considering whether the plaintiff was negligent, the jury should be instructed to calculate a single total percentage for that comparative negligence whether it involves a seat belt issue or another issue of comparative negligence. This calculation of the percentage of comparative negligence should then be reflected on the verdict form and used to reduce the total jury award in a single calculation.
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