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Failure to wear a seatbelt in SC is not considered “comparative negligence” or “negligence per se” – what is called “the seatbelt defense” in some other states does not apply in SC.
Below, we will break down why not wearing a seatbelt has no effect on your civil case after an auto accident, including:
SC has a mandatory seatbelt law, although violations are punishable by a fine only. You might think that 1) because it is a law intended for the safety of motorists, a violation would be negligence per se, and 2) because violation of the law could result in greater injury, it would be comparative negligence.
But it is not either. Why?
Two years before SC passed our mandatory seatbelt law, in 1987, the SC Supreme Court decided Keaton v. Pearson, where they declined to approve a “seatbelt defense” in SC auto accident cases:
We now hold that in the absence of an affirmative statutory duty, a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt does not constitute contributory negligence or a preinjury failure to minimize damages.
The Court reasoned that, since the legislature had not imposed a duty to wear a seatbelt, it was not the courts’ place to impose that duty:
Like courts of other jurisdictions, we defer to the state legislature to impose upon the people of our state the duty to wear a seat belt… In view of the continuing legislative debate over a mandatory automobile seat belt law, we decline to judicially impose a penalty on the occupant who chooses not to wear a seat belt.
Two years later, in 1989, the legislature did impose a duty to wear a seatbelt, but the failure to wear a seatbelt is still not considered comparative negligence or negligence per se in SC.
SC Code Section 56-5-6520 makes seatbelt use mandatory, and imposes penalties on adults who do not make sure that children 17 years old or younger are wearing a seatbelt:
The driver and every occupant of a motor vehicle, when it is being operated on the public streets and highways of this State, must wear a fastened safety belt which complies with all provisions of federal law for its use. The driver is charged with the responsibility of requiring each occupant seventeen years of age or younger to wear a safety belt or be secured in a child restraint system as provided in Article 47 of this chapter. However, a driver is not responsible for an occupant seventeen years of age or younger who has a driver’s license, special restricted license, or beginner’s permit and who is not wearing a seat belt; such occupant is in violation of this article and must be fined in accordance with Section 56-5-6540.
In SC Code Section 56-5-6540, the legislature included provisions to ensure that failure to wear a seatbelt would not be considered a criminal offense:
A person who is adjudicated to be in violation of the provisions of this article must be fined not more than twenty-five dollars, no part of which may be suspended. No court costs, assessments, or surcharges may be assessed against a person who violates a provision of this article. A person must not be fined more than fifty dollars for any one incident of one or more violations of the provisions of this article. A custodial arrest for a violation of this article must not be made, except upon a warrant issued for failure to appear in court when summoned or for failure to pay an imposed fine. A violation of this article does not constitute a criminal offense.
No points can be assessed against a person’s driver’s license for violation of the seatbelt law, and the legislature specified that a “vehicle, driver, or occupant in a vehicle must not be searched, nor may consent to search be requested by a law enforcement officer, solely because of a violation of this article.”
More importantly, in 56-5-6540(C), the legislature clearly states that a violation of the seatbelt law “is not negligence per se or contributory negligence, and is not admissible as evidence in a civil action.”
A later Court of Appeals opinion, Sims v. Gregory, affirmed the dismissal of a case brought by a mother against the father for failing to properly secure their minor daughter with a seatbelt, which resulted in injuries to the minor child:
In 1989, the General Assembly passed a statute requiring all drivers and occupants of motor vehicles to use safety belts. S.C. Code Ann. 56-5-6520 (Supp. 2008). The mandatory seatbelt law states, “[t]he driver and every occupant of a motor vehicle . . . must wear a fastened safety belt. . . . The driver is charged with the responsibility of requiring each occupant seventeen years of age or younger to wear a safety belt or be secured in a child restraint system. . . .” Id. Simultaneously, the General Assembly refused to allow the use of evidence in a civil action showing that a driver or occupant of a motor vehicle failed to use a safety belt. S.C. Code Ann. 56-5-6540(C) (Supp. 2008). Specifically, section 56-5-6540(C), which delineates the penalties for a violation of the mandatory seatbelt law, states, “[a] violation of this article is not negligence per se or contributory negligence, and is not admissible as evidence in a civil action.”
Ordinarily, a plaintiff’s comparative negligence (or failure to mitigate their damages) would require any verdict to be reduced by the percentage of the plaintiff’s negligence up to 50% and would bar any recovery by the plaintiff if their negligence was greater than 50%.
This does not apply to failing to wear a seatbelt in SC because the legislature expressly said that violation of the seatbelt law is not contributory negligence (contributory negligence is slightly different than comparative negligence, but the legislature meant either).
Ordinarily, when a person violates a law that is designed to protect the public against the type of harm caused by their conduct, they are “negligent per se.”
This does not apply to SC’s seatbelt law, however.
For one thing, the seatbelt law is designed to protect you, not others. Whether or not it would be considered negligence per se otherwise does not matter, however, because the legislature expressly stated in the seatbelt law that a violation “is not negligence per se… and is not admissible as evidence in a civil action.”
1) It’s not comparative negligence, 2) it’s not negligence per se, and 3) it’s not admissible in court at all – the defense attorneys for the insurance company don’t get to even mention it in trial.
Whether or not you were wearing a seatbelt at the time of the car accident has no bearing on your ability to file a lawsuit or to recover full compensation for your damages caused by a negligent driver.
Your SC auto accident lawyer on the Axelrod team will help you to determine who was liable for the crash and whether comparative negligence or negligence per se will apply in your car accident case. Call now at 843-916-9300 or send us a message for a free case evaluation.
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