When you are hurt in a traffic accident in which another driver is negligent, you hope to get full compensation for your injuries. However, the law allows the negligent driver to point the finger at you for any wrong actions on your part.
If you violated New York's seat belt law and didn't buckle up, the negligent driver can allege contributory negligence on your part, and ask the court only to award damages for the injuries you would have sustained if you have been wearing a seat belt. This "seat belt defense" makes the calculation of damages highly speculative, because a jury must imagine "what might have been" instead of what actually happened.
Within the common law tradition of personal injury litigation, the seat belt defense is problematic. That is why 31 jurisdictions throughout the U.S. have rejected it. However, New York law allows evidence that a plaintiff failed to wear a seat belt to be used to prove contributory negligence. But that's a misnomer. Failing to wear a seat belt may be negligence, but it is not the type of negligence that actually causes an accident. So, it does not fit a strict definition of contributory fault.
Proponents of the seat belt defense point to an injured party's duty to mitigate damages. This is an established legal rule: a person who is harmed must act reasonably to limit the amount of harm, and by doing so, limit the amount of damages a defendant would have to pay. By failing to wear a seat belt, the injured party causes his injuries to be greater than they would have been. The victim has breached the duty to mitigate damages and is only entitled to recover the amount he would have gotten if he had acted reasonably to reduce harm to himself.
But, historically, the duty to mitigate has only applied to actions the victim takes after an accident. There has never been a duty to mitigate damages before an injury occurs.
New York's seat belt defense does not fit neatly into our tradition of personal injury law. Instead, it is more of a penalty for failing to follow the law. Because it is widely recognized that seat belts reduce harm and save lives, it is the public policy of New York to promote seat belt use. Allowing the seat belt defense is part and parcel of that policy.
So, if you've been hurt in an accident and were not wearing a seat belt, you may have a difficult time collecting full compensation for your injuries. However, experienced attorneys can employ strategies to counter the seat belt defense.
For answers to your questions about your car accident, schedule a free consultation with a knowledgeable attorney at Rubin & Licatesi, P.C. Call us at 516-227-2662 or contact our Brooklyn office online.