Monday, June 1, 2009

Pennsylvania Superior Court Upholds Legislative Prohibition Against Seat Belt Defense

In an opinion handed down yesterday, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, among other things, upheld the legislative prohibition against the seat belt defense found under 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4581(e) in the case of Gaudio v. Ford Motor Company, 2009 Pa.Super. 102 (June 1, 2009)(Fitzgerald, J., concurring and dissenting in part). The decision was a 2-1 decision on the seat belt defense issue and the issue of the decedent's pre-impact conduct, but unanimous in all other respects.

Gaudio is a strict products liability action in which the Plaintiff attempted to prove that the vehicle's airbag system was defective and caused the Plaintiff's injuries in a single car accident. The Plaintiff's decedent's vehicle slid off the road and landed in a ditch. The decedent was later found in the vehicle by emergency personnel along with an exposed and deflated airbag.

Ford countered by asserting that the airbag system was not defective and that the Plaintiff's decedent's injuries were caused by other pre-impact factors including the fact that the decedent was not wearing his seat belt and was unnecessarily closer to the steering wheel, reaching down to the floor area, when the airbag activated.

The trial court in Pike County recognized the general legislative prohibition of mentioning a plaintiff's non-use of a seat belt during a civil trial but felt that perhaps defendants should be allowed to use the defense in certain very limited circumstances such as in this case where the issue of seat belt use was central to the resolution of whether the airbag system was defective. More specifically, the trial court felt that, as long as the defense was not being used to assert contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff, it could perhaps be used for other limited purposes relevant to the case.

I note that the trial court's decision was a topic of a previous article of mine from the October 1, 2007 Pennsylvania Law Weekly entitled "Time to Unbuckle the Seat Belt Defense?" To view this article, please click on this link: http://www.jdsupra.com/post/documentViewer.aspx?fid=1d844477-c47e-4922-8adb-846662f9c1c7.

In that article, I proposed that, in this day and age, essentially twenty years after the seat belt law went into effect, the time had come to add an additional incentive to those last remaining non-compliant drivers (as well as all drivers) to use seat belts particularly with all of the scientific evidence existing today that seat belts serve to prevent or minimize injuries in motor vehicle accidents.

I concluded the article by noting that in light of the clear statutory mandate prohibiting the seat belt defense in civil litigation matters, it appeared the the change in the law would have to come from the Legislature as opposed to the courts of Pennsylvania.

As anticipated, the Superior Court in Gaudio opted to follow the black and white letter of the statutory prohibition against the seat belt defense and "construe[d] the legislative intent of the provision to be a blanket exclusion of evidence of seat belt usage in civil actions for any purpose, including to prove not only contributory negligence but also defect, causation and/or damages."

The Superior Court also noted that it was not a proper function of the courts to insert its judgment as to the propriety of the prohibition against the seat belt defense where the Legislature had already resolved the issue by a clearly worded statute. Thus, the suggestion was that any change in the law would have to come from a Legislative amendment.

For the reasons stated in the above-referenced article, I again suggest that the time has come for that change in the law. More specifically, there is firmly established scientific evidence that shows that the use of seat belts minimizes the extent of injuries and chances of death. Also, a large majority of motorists use seat belts on a routine basis and the seat belt defense would only be applicable to that small number of vehicle occupants lacking common sense and still foolish enough to still ride in motor vehicles without belting up. It would also appear that the abolishment of the prohibition against the seat belt defense would further the current recognized policy of cost containment with respect to spiraling automobile insurance costs by limiting the damages recoverable by those few injured parties who broke the law by still refusing to wear seat belts after all of these years.

The Gaudio decision is also noteworthy for the Court's additional evidentiary ruling that the decedent's other pre-impact conduct, such as reaching to the floor prior to the impact and bringing his body closer to where the air bag would activate should have been precluded by the trial court. In this regard, the Superior Court upheld the general strict products liability rule that negligence concepts, such as the comparative or contributory negligence of an injured party, except in very limited circumstances not found to exist in this matter, were not permissible in a products case.

Also of note in the Gaudio decision was the Superior Court's upholding of the continuing viability of the crashworthiness doctrine. Lastly, the Superior Court also addressed the issue of the admissibility of evidence of compliance with Federal safety standards in a products case.

I again thank James Beck, Esquire of the Philadelphia office of the Dechert, LLP law firm for advising me of this decision. I also again note that Attorney Beck is the co-writer of an excellent legal blog entitled Drug and Device Law found at http://www.druganddevicelaw.blogspot.com/. I invite you to check out his blog.

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