What is the Seat Belt Defense? [2023] Staff Profile Picture
Written By:
Joseph Shirazi, Esq. Profile Picture
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With 34 states and territories having primary seat belt laws on the books, the seat belt defense can be a significant factor in personal injury cases where it might apply. 

The concept of a seat belt defense can be critical in determining liability and compensation in accident-related lawsuits. This defense theory revolves around the contention that an individual’s at fault for failing to wear a seat belt, and as a result, their damages should be reduced. 

In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of the seat belt defense, clarifying what it entails. We will explore common legal arguments against the seat belt defense and dissect the jurisdictions that permit its use, differentiating between states with primary and secondary seat belt laws. Additionally, we’ll outline the two primary types of claims individuals can make and discuss the invaluable role that attorneys play in managing the complications of such cases, offering guidance and expertise to secure just compensation.

What is a Seat Belt Defense?

The seat belt defense theory is a legal defense used in tort law cases, typically in the context of personal injury lawsuits. It is based on the premise that a person injured in an accident may have contributed to their injuries by not wearing a seat belt. Therefore, their damages should be reduced or eliminated because of this contributory negligence. 

The seat belt defense & tort law

Tort law often deals with negligence claims, where one party alleges that another party’s negligence led to their injuries. The seat belt defense introduces the concept of comparative negligence, suggesting that the injured party’s failure to wear a seat belt contributed to their harm.

Common legal arguments against a seat belt defense

  • Causation: Opponents of the seat belt defense argue that not wearing a seat belt may not have been the direct cause of the injuries. They claim that other factors, such as the at-fault party's actions, road conditions, or vehicle defects, could have been the primary cause.

  • Violation of Traffic Laws: Seat belt laws vary by jurisdiction, and in some places, not wearing a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning it’s not a violation that can lead to a traffic stop or citation on its own. In such cases, it may be argued that the injured party’s failure to wear a seat belt should not be a significant factor in determining liability.

  • Seat Belt Availability: Some argue that the seat belt defense should not apply if the injured party did not have access to a functioning seat belt at the time of the accident. If the vehicle lacked operable seat belts, this could be a valid argument against the defense.

Real-Life Example: Erroneous Use of the Seat Belt Defense

I once had a case in which the plaintiff (my client) was taking a nap in his parked vehicle at the time of the accident. The defendant tried to use the seat belt defense. However, the seat belt defense does not apply to parked vehicles because you don’t have a duty to be strapped in while parked. 

The defense initially offered $10,000 as a settlement, but we received the policy limits of $250,000 for the personal injury claim.

We used the following arguments to secure the settlement:

Seat belt usage didn’t establish causation in this case.

While the failure to employ a seat belt may have intensified the injuries, it’s not a contributory element in the origination of the accident or the injuries sustained. The plaintiff’s injuries were due to the actions of the defendant, not due to an absence of a seat belt.

Donning a seatbelt was not pertinent to damage mitigation in this case.

It’s up to the plaintiff, after the accident, to limit the extent of damages incurred. This means that the plaintiff must act in a way that aims to alleviate the extent of damages or injuries incurred. These actions do not include fastening a seat belt after an accident– we argued that fastening the seat belt after the accident would be an illogical approach to reducing the impact of the injuries. 

The “seat belt defense” is at odds with the legal doctrine of the “eggshell plaintiff.”

The legal precept of the “eggshell plaintiff” dictates that a defendant must accept the plaintiff in their present state, including any vulnerabilities or frailties. We argued that the plaintiff’s risk of injury in this case was not attributed to wearing a seat belt since they were napping in their car at the time of the incident and the defendant must accept that due to the “eggshell plaintiff” doctrine.

It is not the duty of the plaintiff to foresee or guard against the potential negligence of another individual

The defendant’s liability is confined to their own conduct. We argued that the damages shouldn’t be mitigated because the plaintiff couldn’t reasonably be expected to foresee others’ negligence.

Jurisdictions that allow for a seat belt defense

Seat belt laws in the United States vary by state. Some states have primary enforcement laws allowing police to pull over and ticket drivers solely for not wearing a seat belt. In states with secondary enforcement laws, not wearing a seat belt is a ticketable offense only if the driver is pulled over for another reason. 

This variation affects the viability of the seat belt defense depending on the state in which you reside. Failure to wear a seat belt may be a stronger argument for contributory negligence in states with primary enforcement. It may be a weaker defense in states with secondary enforcement since it’s a less significant traffic violation.

As of 2023, states and territories with primary seat belt laws include:

  • Alabama

  • Alaska

  • Arkansas

  • California

  • Connecticut 

  • Delaware 

  • D.C.

  • Florida

  • Georgia

  • Guam

  • Hawaii

  • Illinois

  • Indiana 

  • Iowa

  • Kansas

  • Kentucky 

  • Louisiana 

  • Maine

  • Maryland 

  • Michigan

  • Minnesota

  • Mississippi

  • New Jersey

  • New Mexico

  • New York

  • North Carolina 

  • Northern Mariana Islands

  • Oklahoma

  • Oregon

  • Puerto Rico

  • Rhode Island

  • South Carolina

  • Tennessee

  • Texas

  • Utah

  • Virgin Islands

  • Washington

  • West Virginia 

  • Wisconsin

States with secondary seat belt laws include the following:

  • Arizona

  • Colorado (primary for minors)

  • Idaho (primary for minors)

  • Massachusetts

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • Nebraska

  • Nevada

  • North Dakota

  • Ohio

  • Pennsylvania 

  • South Dakota

  • Vermont (primary for minors)

  • Virginia (primary for minors)

  • Wyoming

What type of claim can I make?

You can typically make two types of claims: a comparative negligence claim and a claim regarding the plaintiff’s failure to mitigate damages.

  1. Comparative Negligence Claim: This claim suggests that the injured party’s failure to wear a seat belt contributed to their injuries. Depending on the jurisdiction’s laws, it may reduce the plaintiff’s recoverable damages in proportion to their percentage of fault. For instance, if the plaintiff is found 20% at fault for not wearing a seat belt, their damages may be reduced by 20%.

  2. Plaintiff’s Failure to Mitigate Damages: This claim argues that the plaintiff failed to take reasonable steps to minimize their injuries by not using a seat belt. It can affect the overall damages by potentially reducing the amount the plaintiff can recover because they didn’t take precautions to limit harm. 

The critical difference is that comparative negligence focuses on apportioning fault, while the responsibility to mitigate damages centers on whether the plaintiff could have reasonably prevented some harm. The impact on damages depends on the specific laws and circumstances of the case.

How an Attorney Can Help Recover Compensation 

An attorney can be invaluable in helping individuals recover compensation in situations that may involve the seat belt defense. While hiring an attorney does involve costs, their expertise can greatly outweigh these expenses. Attorneys understand the intricacies of the law, can build strong cases, and negotiate effectively with insurance companies, increasing the chances of obtaining fair compensation.’s Personal Injury Lawyer Directory is a helpful resource for those seeking skilled attorneys. It offers an easy-to-use, searchable database by metro area, enabling individuals to find top-rated legal professionals near them who specialize in personal injury cases. This can streamline connecting with experienced lawyers who can fight for their rights and fair compensation.

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Joseph Shirazi, Esq. Profile Picture

Joseph Shirazi, Esq.Reviewer

Joseph Shirazi is an experienced car accident attorney at Compass Law Group, LLP in the Beverly Hills area. He has been named one of the nation’s top 40 under 40 trial lawyers due to his proactive approach toward recovering compensation for his clients.