New law will let Indiana juries know about seat belt use in crashes

If someone involved in a car crash isn’t buckled up, an Indiana jury currently isn’t allowed to know that due to the state’s longstanding prohibition on introducing such evidence.

That will change as of July 1, thanks to the Legislature’s passage of House Bill 1090.

The measure, which was signed into law Monday by Gov. Eric Holcomb, includes a provision that allows evidence of a failure to comply with passenger restraint system statutes to be admitted in a civil action to mitigate damages for a plaintiff who is at least 15 years of age or older.

Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, is the chairman of the Indiana House’s Roads and Transportation Committee and author of the bill.

In his Feb. 13 testimony in front of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Transportation Committee, Pressel said the seat-belts portion of HB 1090 addresses an age-old issue that has been discussed in the Legislature for 25 years but had never reached consensus.

When seat-belt usage laws were being adopted by states across the country in the 1980s, Indiana was reluctant to allow such evidence in personal-injury trials because compliance was so spotty.

When Indiana adopted its seat belt act in 1987, compliance hovered around 20%. Today, seat-belt usage in the state is at 93% and most of the major players at the Legislature this year agreed it was time to allow such evidence to be admitted at trial, at the judge’s discretion.

Strong support

The bill passed in the House by a 86-11 vote, before easing through the Senate by a 36-13 margin.

Adam Berry, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development and technology, told the Senate committee his organization supported the bill.

“I always wondered why something so obvious about whether someone was wearing a seat belt or not was excluded from evidence,” Berry said.

Christopher Lee, a partner in the Indianapolis office of Dinsmore & Shohl and past president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana, also offered testimony on the bill in front of the Senate committee.

“Frankly, as a practitioner, I’m surprised it didn’t happen 20 years ago,” Lee told the committee.

Lee noted that the bill only addresses mitigation of damages and is a good compromise that promotes driver and passenger safety. Initially, the bill said seatbelt evidence “must be admitted” at trial but a House amendment changed that to “may be admitted.”

He said the only thing he would change with the bill would be to allow the evidence to apply toward determining fault. He noted that pre-incident/accident conduct typically applies to the comparative fault of the parties involved in a crash.

Alex Limontes, an attorney with Hurst Limontes LLC, and an at-large member of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association’s executive committee, said that HB 1090 went through the House’s transportation committee this session, as opposed to the judiciary committee as it had in previous years.

Indiana Capital Chronicle reported in January that an updated version of the bill says the defendant has the burden to prove the other party wasn’t wearing a seat belt and that using one would have reduced injuries.

Warren Mathies, of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association, said the group supported the amendment but still had concerns about the bill. He suggested adding a percentage cap on the reduction in damages related to seat-belt compliance.

Limontes said the potential admission of seat belt testimony will just add more time to trials.

“It’s just such a red herring for the jury. It allows the focus to be taken off the real issue,” Limontes said.

The trucking industry, a target for personal-injury lawsuits, supported the measure.

“This has been needed for a long, long time,” said Gary Langston, president and CEO of the Indiana Motor Truck Association.

He said plaintiff attorney groups had done a better job in recent years than defense counsel organizations in advocating on the issue. His group has been lobbying for change for the past three to four years.

Langston said trucking crash lawsuits with multimillion claims inevitably result in problems for consumers, with increased insurance rates leading to higher prices for goods transported by truck.

“We call it lawsuit abuse,” Langston said. “We are fighting it across the country. This is one tentacle.”•

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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