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Seatbelts and Strict Liability Claims

Wearing a seatbelt can be annoying, but we must remember that it can save your life. Also, it is important to think about all the possibilities that could result if you make the decision to not wear a seatbelt. Moreover, it is just as important to wear a seatbelt properly as it is to generally wear the seatbelt. First, it is against that law to not wear your seatbelt. So, although in most states it is a secondary offense, you never know what could happen for the police to pull you over for a primary offense, and then you could receive a secondary offense for not wearing your seatbelt in accordance with the law. For example, lets imagine that you are driving down the street and your back-tail light has blown out. If a police officer is behind you and observes the broken tail light, he then has probable cause to pull you over, and the broken tail light will be the primary offense, if the officer is so inclined to give you a citation and not just a warning. At that point, if the officer observes that you are not wearing your seatbelt when he pulls you over, he can also write you a ticket for that as a secondary offense. Although fines for seatbelt citations are minimal, it is still money that you could keep in your pocket.

Let’s now go a little deeper into possible consequences of not wearing your seatbelt, or not properly wearing your seatbelt. This may become a little graphic for some readers when imagining this scenario, so please be warned. Imagine that one day a parent is running late to get to a destination. For the sake of getting this point across, let’s say the parent is running late for work and still must drop his child off at daycare. Due to the parent’s tardiness, he fastens his child’s seatbelt, but places the chest strap behind the child’s chest instead of in front of it because he knows the child will fuss if it is done properly. Now, the parent is at a red light and the light turns green. As the parent proceeds to accelerate through an intersection, a car runs the red light and smashes into the car, and the parent driver is severely injured, and the toddler is thrown forward and is critically injured. Now, your first thought is probably that this was not the parent’s fault and to sue the other driver. Your second thought is probably that there may be a products liability issue if the child was in a restraint device. Each point is true but, because the child was not properly restrained when the parent was in a rush, there may be issues with having a successful claim. You may think that this example is extreme, but situations like this have occurred many times and there are cases that serve as precedents. Below, I will discuss a similar case to the example that was provided so that you may see how complicated litigation may be if an unforeseen accident occurs and a seatbelt is worn improperly, despite the at-fault party.

In Stark ex rel. Jacobsen v. Ford Motor Co., a mother was getting her children together for school one morning and the father was preparing to go to work. Stark ex rel. Jacobsen v. Ford Motor Co., 365 N.C. 468, 470, 723 S.E.2d 753, 755 (2012). Apparently, the family only had one vehicle, so the parents loaded two of the three children into the car, the last child placed himself in the backseat and the mother proceeded to take the father to work, and to drop the children off at school. Id. On the way, the father told the mother to stop at the store. Id. The father went into the store, but realized that he did not have his wallet so he could not make his purchase. Id. He then told his wife to take him back home so he could retrieve his wallet and to then take him back to the store so that he could make his purchase. Id. The mother backed out of her parking spot and began going towards a pass-through so they could get home faster, but she remembered that the pass-through was closed. Id. She then made a U-turn and went through an adjacent parking lot. Id. At that point, the Ford Taurus that they were traveling in started to accelerate on its own through the parking lot. Id. Both the mom and dad attempted to control the wheel with the accelerated speed. Id. Eventually, the vehicle came to a stop as it crashed into the base of a light pole on small curbed island in the parking lot. Id. It was determined that the car was traveling twenty-six miles per hour as it accelerated through the parking lot before it crashed. Id.

The family suffered numerous injuries because of the collision. Id. One of the children suffered a severe cut to his eye, where his eyeball could be seen when his eye was closed, in addition to a concussion and a neck injury. Id. The second child suffered from a liver tear, tears in his colon, a hematoma under his bowel and a tear in his small bowel which lead to leakage into his stomach. Id. The third child sustained bruises on her stomach, an abrasion on her forehead, a tear on her tongue and a spinal cord injury. Id. Because of her spinal cord injury, she became paralyzed. Id.

The basis of the lawsuit came from the injuries of children two and three, as they were the Plaintiffs. Id. Through their Guardian Ad Litem, the children sued Ford Motor Company. Id. They acknowledged that Ford did not cause the accident, but alleged that the Taurus’ seatbelt system caused and enhanced their injuries because the seatbelts did not hold them in properly. Id. Ford asserted that the injuries were caused due to the seriousness of the collision and failure to use the safety equipment as it was designed. Id. Ford further asserted that it’s seatbelt system was reasonably designed and safe when used properly. Id. The expert witness for the Plaintiff’s opined that there was “slack” in the seatbelt and how that cause the children’s enhanced injuries. Id. at 756. However, Ford’s expert witness opined that the third child sustained such serious injuries because evidence suggested that she was not properly strapped in with the seatbelt, and that the chest strap was behind her chest, and not in front of her chest as it should have been. Id. Thus, Ford asserted an affirmative defense of alteration or modification of a product. Id. at 757.

Ultimately at trial, Ford won based on its affirmative defense. Id. at 753. The Plaintiff’s appealed and the manufacturer cross appealed. Id. The trial court’s decision was reversed and remanded in part, specifically based on the determination that the affirmative defense did not apply because the child’s father placed the seatbelt behind her chest and he was not a party of the litigation. Id. The Supreme Court granted review and determined the modification of the shoulder restraint was an affirmative defense to products liability despite the father not being a party in the litigation, and the Ford prevailed. Id.

This case is a great example of how things can go wrong in a matter of seconds and an accident can occur. If the seatbelt had been properly placed on the child, the Plaintiff’s would have likely prevailed on their products liability claim and would have made a recovery. It is very common for people to place the shoulder strap of a seatbelt behind them because it tends to be uncomfortable. However, hopefully after reading this article, you will think twice before wearing your seatbelt improperly and take the time to properly strap any children you may be transporting in properly.

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