The Georgia General Assembly enacted § 40-8-76.1 in 1988—commonly known as Georgia’s seatbelt law— which requires each occupant of the front seat of a passenger vehicle to wear a seat belt while the vehicle is being operated on a public road, street, or highway, subject to exceptions laid out in Georgia Statute § 40-8-76.1(c). Among other things, the statute restricts the use of evidence of a vehicle occupant’s failure to wear a seat safety belt in litigation:
The failure of an occupant of a motor vehicle to wear a seat safety belt in any seat of a motor vehicle that has a seat safety belt or belts shall not be considered evidence of negligence or causation, shall not otherwise be considered by the finder of fact on any question of liability of any person, corporation, or insurer, shall not be any basis for cancellation of coverage or increase in insurance rates, and shall not be evidence used to diminish any recovery for damages arising out of the ownership, maintenance, occupancy, or operation of a motor vehicle.
Before the Georgia Supreme Court was a set of certified questions all of which pertain to Georgia Statute § 40-8-76.1(d), one of which was whether the seat belt law precludes a defendant in an action alleging defective restraint system design and/or negligent restraint system manufacture from producing evidence related to an occupant’s nonuse of a seatbelt as part of their defense.
On March 27, 2020, a Jeep Wrangler struck the 2015 Ford SRW Super Duty Pickup truck that the plaintiff husband was driving. His wife was a passenger. The resulting collision resulted in serious damage to both vehicles. During the crash, the dashboard airbag on the passenger side of the plaintiff’s truck didn’t deploy and plaintiff wife’s head hit the windshield, causing serious injury to her head, neck, and spine.
The plaintiffs filed suit against Ford Motor Company alleging negligence and defective design and manufacture of the subject airbag restraint system and claiming personal injuries to plaintiff wife and loss of consortium for plaintiff husband.
During discovery, the plaintiffs filed a motion in limine asking the district court to exclude from the scope of discovery and from trial any evidence in this case concerning the issue of whether the plaintiffs were or weren’t wearing their seatbelts at the time of the accident. Ford responded that evidence unrelated to the plaintiffs’ actual seat belt use falls outside of Georgia Statute § 40-8-76.1(d)’s exclusionary limits” and that the plaintiffs’ defect allegations and expert testimony in this case “opened the door to the admission of all seat belt evidence.”
The Supreme Court’s Analysis
The Supreme Court examined the text of Georgia Statute § 40-8-76.1(d) and interpreted the seat belt issue as to whether, in this type of case, the law precludes consideration of evidence related to a vehicle occupant’s failure to wear a seatbelt for the purposes outlined forth in subsection (d), even as part of a manufacturer’s defense.
The Court said that the text of Georgia Statute § 40-8-76.1(d) permits only one possible answer to this question: yes.
The Court said the text of the seat belt law doesn’t limit its application to certain types of cases (such as a negligence case, personal injury case, manufacturing-defect case, or design-defect case) or to a certain party. Georgia Statute § 40-8-76.1(d) squarely precludes consideration of a motor vehicle occupant’s nonuse of a seatbelt for those purposes- even as part of a defendant-manufacturer’s defense. Domingue v. Ford Motor Co., 2022 Ga. LEXIS 172 (Ga. June 22, 2022).
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