Lawmakers Expand New York’s Seat Belt Law

Lawmakers Expand New York’s Seat Belt Law

November 17, 2020 | Personal Injury

In 1994, the Empire State was the first jurisdiction to pass a mandatory seat belt law. As of November 1, that law applies to all vehicle occupants over 16, and not just those in the front seat.

Walter Mosley (D-Brooklyn) introduced the bill in the State Assembly.

“Seat belts are a proven way to make our roads safer and lower the number of automobile fatalities,” he declared at the time. “This legislation will go a long way towards achieving that goal and ensuring that all passengers are safe when traveling.”

Citing statistics from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee which indicated that 30 percent of the fatal car accident victims in New York did not wear a seat belt, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law.

Seat Belts and Injuries

There is no doubt that seat belts save lives. Seat belts could give drivers a false sense of security.

Contrary to popular myth, trauma impacts are not the only cause of head injuries. Seat belts might partially protect vehicle occupants from these injuries. But they do not protect against motion and noise-related head injuries.

During a collision, the victim’s head usually moves forward and backward quickly and violently. This sudden motion causes the brain to slam repeatedly against the insides of the skull. Furthermore, the sudden, loud noise often projects a shock wave which disrupts brain functions.

On a related note, the whip-like motion also causes whiplash, a serious car crash neck injury which could cause paralysis.

Both these injuries usually do not appear on X-rays and some other common diagnostic tests. For this reason, a New York personal injury attorney usually refers car crash victims to car crash injury doctors.

These professionals know how to diagnose and treat injuries like head wounds and whiplash.

The Seat Belt Defense in New York

In terms of negligence claims, New York is one of the only jurisdictions which recognizes the seat belt defense.

Although insurance companies cannot use seat belt non-use to shift blame for the accident, they can use this issue to reduce the amount of compensation the victim/plaintiff receives.

However, the seat belt defense is not always effective.

To use it, insurance companies must do more than cite safety statistics and wag their fingers at victims. They must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the victim voluntarily did not use a seat belt and that non-use, as opposed to the tortfeasor’s (negligent driver’s) negligence, substantially caused the victim’s injuries.

Catastrophic crashes usually destroy much or all of the physical evidence inside the car.

Sometimes, this effect works against victim/plaintiffs, who normally have the burden of proof. But in this situation, the lack of evidence works against the insurance company.

There may be evidence that the victim was not wearing a seat belt after the crash, but there is no evidence as to use at the moment of the crash.

Seat belt mechanisms, particularly the buckles, can take a lot of use. But their usable life is finite. Over time, these mechanisms degrade. A violent jolt, like a crash, could cause uncoupling.

The seat belt defense is even harder to prove if the belt, buckle, or any other part was the subject of a safety recall. This issue could soon become a game-changer.

According to reports, as many as a third of passenger vehicles on the road today might have defective Takata seat belts.

Establishing non-use is only half the battle. As mentioned, lawyers must also prove that non-use substantially caused the victim’s injuries. Also as mentioned, seat belts do not protect against all head injuries, or even most of them.

If there is some dispute as to whether the tortfeasor’s negligence or the lack of a seat belt caused injury, jurors must normally apportion fault on a percentage basis.

New York is a pure comparative fault state. Therefore, even if the tortfeasor was only 1 percent responsible for the victim’s injuries, the victim is still liable for a proportionate share of damages.

These damages usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Car crashes cause serious injuries which seat belts often cannot prevent.

For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. We do not charge upfront legal fees and only recover a fee when we win your case.

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