Pennsylvania Seatbelt Law Continues To Restrain Defendants
Pennsylvania -- Automobile Liability & Product Liability
If you watch reruns of old television programs, you have probably noticed an image that we would never see in today's programs: a driver without a seatbelt. Today, more than ever, the vast majority of us are buckling up, some because of the staggering statistics of the effectiveness of seatbelts, some because the law mandates it. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, national seat belt use has increased from 11 percent in 1982 to 84 percent in 2009.
Pennsylvania's seatbelt law is found at 75 Pa.C.S.A. Section 4581. It was enacted in 1987 and makes seatbelt use in the Commonwealth mandatory. The same law also precludes evidence of a violation of this requirement in any civil action. This evidentiary preclusion was the subject of the recent Superior Court decision in Gaudio v. Ford Motor Company, 2009 Pa Super 102; 976 A.2d 524 (2009).
The estate of Andrew Gaudio brought a civil action following a fatal, single car accident. At the time of the accident, Mr. Gaudio was driving a Ford pick-up truck equipped with an airbag. As he approached a "T" intersection where the stop sign governing his direction of travel had been knocked down, he apparently applied his brakes but skidded through the intersection and into a dirt embankment. Opposing experts generally agreed that he was only traveling at a speed of between 8 and 14 miles per hour when he struck the embankment.
Emergency personnel reported that Mr. Gaudio was unresponsive upon their arrival and that he was not wearing his seatbelt. The airbag had deployed.
The estate pursued a civil action against Ford claiming that the design of the airbag was defective because it should not have deployed in such a low speed collision. They also alleged that the airbag deployed too late, when Mr. Gaudio would have been pushed too close to the steering wheel. The estate's case clearly depended upon the position of Mr. Gaudio inside the vehicle at the point of the airbag deployment.
Ford countered the estate's allegations with evidence that if Mr. Gaudio was too close to the airbag upon deployment, it was because he was not wearing his seatbelt. They argued that the airbag was not defective but was instead a "secondary" safety system meant to supplement, not replace, the seatbelt restraints.
Prior to trial, the estate argued that § 4581 precluded any evidence suggesting that Mr. Gaudio was not wearing a seatbelt. Ford argued that while § 4581 may preclude an argument for comparative negligence based on failure to wear a seatbelt, it does not and should not preclude them from using it in support of a causation argument. The court agreed with Ford and allowed them to argue that it was the fact that Mr. Gaudio was out of position in the vehicle because he was not wearing a seatbelt and that not any defect in the airbag that brought about the injury. The jury returned a defense verdict, and the estate appealed.
The trial judge relied on a common sense analysis of the statute, after all, it would be unjust to preclude the defense from introducing evidence that Mr. Gaudio was not wearing his seatbelt since his position at impact was critical to both the plaintiff's and the defense's cases and was central to the causation issue. He reasoned that the proper interpretation of § 4581 should preclude a defendant from arguing that the failure to use a seatbelt was comparative negligence but that justice required that the defendants be allowed to use such evidence for other reasons, particularly in support of a causation argument.
The Superior Court disagreed and mandated a strict interpretation of § 4581 unless or until the Legislature or the Supreme Court say otherwise. Notably, the Superior Court does not tell us that the trial judge was wrong in his interpretation of what justice demanded; it only tells us that the trial judge was wrong in making such an interpretation in light of a clear, unambiguous statute. Specifically, the Superior Court indicates, "Whether or not the application of a blanket exclusion of evidence of non-seat belt usage in a products liability case was 'unjust', as the trial court concludes, was not for the trial court and is not for this Court to decide." The statute says "in no event shall" the Superior Court decline to interpret this as something other than its plain meaning.
It is important to note that nothing in § 4581 precludes a plaintiff from testifying that he had his seatbelt on; it would, however, act as a bar against any evidence to refute such a contention.
The Gaudio decision presents a problem for anyone charged with evaluating a tort claim that involves a question of seatbelt use. The problem, however, is not of the Superior Court's making. Whether the evidentiary preclusion imbedded in § 4581 reflected logical, well-reasoned legislation when it was passed is of little importance. Few would now argue that it still reflects the values and common sense of today's society, just 20 years after its enactment. To doubt that is to doubt the reaction that we all have when we notice a driver without a seatbelt during a late night television rerun. Perhaps the suggestion that the issue should ultimately be decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court set forth in the dissenting opinion in Gaudio is an avenue to reconcile the unjust, but unavoidable, consequences of § 4581. Better still, if the Legislature deems seatbelts to be critical to the safety of the citizens of the Commonwealth while they are on the roads, perhaps it should also recognize that they are just as important to those same citizens while they are in the courtroom.
*John is an associate in our Scranton, Pennsylvania, office. He can be reached at (570) 496-4605 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 15, No. 4, December 2009