House bill could mean less in lawsuit damage awards for failing to wear seat belts

People who sue makers of cars and their components after sustaining injuries related to those products could be awarded less money if they weren’t properly using a seat belt, under a bill being considered in the Missouri House.

Representative Nick Schroer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Right now a person filing such a suit could see damages reduced up to 1-percent, but only if expert evidence is presented showing that failing to properly use a seat belt could have contributed to his or her injuries.  Representative Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon), the sponsor of House Bill 1264, said such evidence is almost never presented if only because experts typically cost more to hire than the 1-percent mitigation would amount to.

HB 1264 would remove that 1-percent limit and the requirement for expert evidence, and leave to a jury the decision of whether the seat belt could have made a difference.  The jury would also have the option of whether to adjust damages by any amount.  The bill is going to be amended so that it will deal only with products liability cases.

“Now the manufacturer – whether it’s tires, auto manufacturer, seat belt, the tempered glass that’s put in there – they’re all making their product assuming, and making it safe in conjunction with, somebody wearing a properly fastened seat belt,” said Schroer.  “So this evidence would help – in certain situations – show, should somebody be made whole?  Is somebody actually negligent here?”

Schroer presented his bill to the House Special Committee on Litigation Reform.  Liberty Democrat Mark Ellebracht, who sits on that committee, said the legislation “speaks to fairness.”

Representative Mark Ellebracht (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“There’s nobody that doesn’t know that every car comes with a seat belt and doesn’t know how to use that seat belt, and I don’t think that it’s unreasonable for the jury to be able to consider the use or misuse of that seat belt, or non-use of that seat belt, when it comes to a person’s injuries in the context of a products liability claim,” said Ellebracht.  “I think that fairness should include the ability for the jury to take into account some of those facts and say, ‘Well maybe you should have been wearing your seat belt at the time of that accident and maybe it’s not entirely the fault of that product.’”

Ellebracht favors an earlier version of the bill that would increase the cap on the mitigation of damages from 1-percent to 25-percent rather than remove it entirely.  Schroer plans to amend that version of the bill to match language the Senate is considering, which removes the cap entirely.

Both representatives hope the legislation will have the added effect of compelling more Missourians to wear their seat belts.

The Committee on Litigation Reform is expected to vote on HB 1264 next week.

Additional audio:  

Schroer:  “Now we have so many different safety mechanisms that are built in conjunction with one another, and if one of those cogs is not properly in the wheel or in the situation something may fail, and that’s why we think that during these times we need to update our statutes.”