Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal Addresses Seatbelt Comparative Negligence Defense

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In a recent decision, Jones v. Alayon, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal addressed several questions arising from trial in an auto accident negligence case. At trial, the jury found that the decedent was, in part, responsible for his death because the evidence established he had not been wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash. Among various arguments the decedent’s estate raised on appeal was whether the trial court erred in not directing a verdict in favor of the estate on the defendant’s seatbelt defense because the undisputed evidence showed that the seatbelt was actually inoperable.

Alayon was brought by the daughter of the decedent as the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. The defendant in this case was the driver of the vehicle that rear-ended the decedent’s vehicle, which caused it to strike a guardrail and turn over. The decedent was ejected from the vehicle. The decedent died as a result of either ejection from the vehicle or being struck by other oncoming cars. The defendant was a off-duty police officer, who fled after striking the decedent’s vehicle and falsely reported that it had been stolen. At the time of the civil trial, the decedent was incarcerated on charges related to the hit-and-run. The defendant conceded liability but contended that his negligence didn’t result in the decedent’s death. Instead, the defendant argued that the decedent was comparatively negligent because he failed to wear a seatbelt.

The defense presented evidence showing the decedent’s failure to wear his seatbelt did, in fact, result in his death. However, the investigating officer testified that the seat belt had coins or some other type of obstruction that rendered it inoperable at the time of the accident. The decedent’s wife also testified that the seatbelt had been malfunctioning for a few days and that the decedent had tried to correct the problem using some tweezers and intended to get the seatbelt replaced but couldn’t do so during the days leading up to the accident because of the weekend and a holiday. Based on the foregoing facts, the estate moved for a directed verdict on the question of the seatbelt defense, arguing that the decedent could not have been negligent because the seatbelt inoperability left him no option to use it. However, the trial court denied the motion, holding that questions of material facts on the decedent’s negligence precluded granting judgment on the seatbelt defense. The jury ultimately determined the decedent was 70 percent responsible and the defendant was 30 percent responsible.

Florida law makes it unlawful for one to “operate a motor vehicle in this state unless the person is restrained by a safety belt.” Fla. Stat. § 316.614(4)(b). The Safety Belt Law also provides that evidence that one failed to wear a seatbelt “may be considered as evidence of comparative negligence, in any civil action.” Fla. Stat. § 316.614(10). Under the original common law defense that was established prior to passage of the Safety Belt Law, a defendant needed to show that the other party failed to use an operational seatbelt. However, the terms of the Safety Belt Law are not limited to circumstances when the seatbelt was operable. Instead, “a jury may still consider the availability or operability of a seat belt in its broader negligence analysis since it is part of the circumstances upon which the jury may decide whether the plaintiff’s [failure to wear a seat belt] was reasonable.” Ridley v. Safety Kleen Corp., 693 So. 2d 934, 943 n.14 (Fla. 1996). Accordingly, the estate’s argument that the decedent could not be deemed negligent because the seatbelt at his disposal was inoperable was without merit. Thus, the Fourth District concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the estate’s motion for a directed verdict on the seatbelt comparative negligence defense.

As this case clearly demonstrates, even concessions of liability cannot assure recovery in some cases. Indeed, defendants in negligence suits will often invoke comparative negligence or other common affirmative defenses to preclude full recovery, even if their liability isn’t really in dispute. Thus, anyone considering taking legal action to recover for another party’s negligence would benefit from consulting with counsel experienced in negligence litigation, including contesting commonly asserted defenses. The South Florida hit-and-run accident attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented numerous South Florida drivers harmed as a result of other motorists’ negligence, and they are ready to provide you with guidance if you have a possible case. Please feel free to contact us if you are interested in a free case consultation.

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