Category: Collision

Click It: The Seat Belt Defense In Louisiana

Louisiana has exhibited a certain double standard when it comes to seat belts.  For years, Louisiana participated in the “Click It or Ticket” public service campaign that lectured on the grave dangers caused by a failure to wear seat belts and the criminal consequences for a failure to comply.  Nevertheless, and for decades, the failure to wear a seat belt was off limits as evidence to reduce a plaintiff’s recovery in a personal injury context.  But, the rule was changed: effective January 1, 2021, the “gag rule” against evidence that a plaintiff failed to wear a seat belt in an accident has been lifted. La. R.S. 32:295.1. Louisiana has no recent history with the “seat belt defense,” such that many questions arise. To frame these questions, this blog takes a quick look to cases from other states and certain guideposts that may already exist in Louisiana jurisprudence.

Like several other states, Florida has a history with the defense. In Smith v. Butterick, 769 So.2d 1056, 1058-9 (Fla.2d DCA 2000), the court outlined three elements of proof a defendant must show to prevail on the defense. Similar elements have been identified in other states. See, e.g., Law v. Superior Court In and For Maricopa County, 157 Ariz. 147, 755 P.2d 1135 (1988). Louisiana may adopt similar elements or chart a different course. The elements outlined in Smith were as follows:

1-Failure to use an available, operational seat belt

This element can be proven through testimony from the plaintiff, passengers, responding law enforcement, or other such testimony or evidence to show that a seat belt was not in use at the time of the accident.  Similarly, testimony or photographs may be used to show that the seat belt was operational.

2- Failure to use seat belt was unreasonable under the circumstances

Insofar as Louisiana and most states generally mandate the use of seatbelts, this element should be easy to demonstrate.  Therefore, unusual facts may be necessary to excuse a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt such as an emergency trip to the hospital.

3-Plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt substantially caused or contributed to the damages

Of the three possible elements, this is likely to be the battleground. In some cases, the issue may be simple. For instance, if a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt allows their body to strike (or travel through) a windshield, it may be simple to show that the plaintiff’s (or decedent’s) failure to use a seatbelt magnified the injuries. Expert testimony may not even be needed.   In Smith, testimony from a mechanical engineer that the passenger would not have hit interior surfaces had they used a seat belt was allowed. However, will expert testimony be required in most cases and what type of expert will be needed? Engineer? Physician? Biomechanical?

Will the defendant bear the burden to prove the aggravation like they have in many national cases?  Will Louisiana courts fashion an inference or “shifting burden” approach where a prima facie showing that a plaintiff’s whose failure to wear a seat belt increased the possibility of injury would possess the burden to show their injuries would have occurred even had they used a seat belt.  In Anderson v. Watson, 953 P. 2d 1284 (Colo. 1998), the court required the defendant to only show a prima facie case of seat belt nonuse to allow the fact of nonuse to go to the jury. 

Seat belts are required because they can prevent or lessen injury. Does a defendant have to show the precise details as to how seat belt nonuse caused or magnified the injury? In Louisiana, these answers remain unclear; but these are some of the questions.

Further complications are present in cases involving alleged traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the new frontier of vestibular injuries. Louisiana courts have often rejected testimony from accident reconstruction or bio-mechanical experts for a variety of reasons, but with this statutory defense, such testimony may be critical to determine who is responsible for an alleged catastrophic loss.  States that recognize this rule have examined many factors that relate to the injuries that arise from the failure to use a seatbelt. As such, it seems inevitable that expert testimony on this issue must be considered in many nonuse cases.

No doubt, many of these questions will be the subject of litigation arising from accidents which occur after January 1, 2021. Louisiana’s double standard has ended.  What is certain is that a failure to wear a seat belt now has the potential to harm not only a plaintiff’s health, but also their chances of recovery in civil litigation.


Collin is a Keogh Cox partner who litigates injury, commercial, and legal malpractice disputes. He lives in nearby Zachary, Louisiana with his wife Melissa and three all too active children. He is an outdoorsman, a tennis player, a cook, and a hobbyist writer.

This blog was written in partnership with John P Wolff, III.

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Minimal Force of an Impact Matters in Car Accident Litigation

For years, Louisiana plaintiffs attorneys have argued that the force of impact in an auto accident is not determinative of their clients’ injuries and should be afforded little, if any, weight. A recent decision out of the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal does damage to that argument. In Jones v. Bravata, Jr. and The City of Baton Rouge, 2018 CA 0837 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/9/19), the First Circuit upheld the trial court’s jury instruction on “force of impact” where photographs showed only minor damage and the defendant described the accident as a “bump.”

The accident occurred when a City employee rear-ended the plaintiffs’ vehicle. Liability was stipulated and the only question at trial was damages. Mrs. Jones alleged severe neck and back injuries. She began treatment with an orthopedist within a week of the accident and thereafter received five “relatively non-invasive surgical procedures” in lieu of a lumbar fusion surgery. The jury returned a verdict of $200,000, which included $150,000 in past medical expenses and $35,000 in future medical expenses, but awarded little for general damages. Mrs. Jones appealed the verdict, asserting that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on force of impact.

The “force of impact” jury instruction in dispute provided:

While the force of a collision may be considered in determining whether a person was injured by an accident and the extent of the injuries sustained, it should not be the only factor to consider in making such a determination. Even though the force of impact may be slight, it does not preclude an award of damages. However, in determining causation, you may consider the minimal nature of the accident.

In considering the plaintiff’s assignment of error, the First Circuit noted that Mrs. Jones was correct that no witness specifically testified that the accident was too minor to have caused her injuries. However, there was evidence in the record upon which the jury could have reached the conclusion that this was a minimal impact.

Common sense would appear to support a connection between the force of an impact and the injury one could be expected to suffer. The recent Jones decision allows defendants to promote this common sense argument. Where the claimed injuries are disproportionate to the forces involved, this argument can make the difference at trial.

John Grinton is a partner of the firm admitted in state, federal and appellate courts throughout Louisiana.  His practice focuses on commercial and construction litigation, representing insurance companies, architects, engineers, contractors and other businesses in all aspects of litigation.  His workers’ compensation practice includes representing clients in medical billing disputes, healthcare provider disputes, statutory/borrowing/special employer disputes, and court approved settlements. John has been involved in complex cases involving construction defect claims, breach of contract and negligence actions, insurance coverage issues, lender liability, securities litigation and personal injury matters. He has firsthand experience in jury trials and arbitration’s, as well as mediation, appellate briefing and oral argument.

Black Boxes: The Secrets Your Vehicle Keeps

By Brian Butler

Many do not realize modern vehicles are always ready to record critical driving information. As with airplanes, most passenger vehicles are now equipped with Event Data Recorders (EDR), or “Black Boxes.” This information may be critical after an accident to show what happened, and who was at fault.

EDRs may record pre-event data for five seconds before and one second after an accident, possibly including vehicle speed, engine speed, percent throttle, change in velocity, and whether the brakes were applied. The make and model of the vehicle will determine what data is available. If you want this data, you must act quickly because it will be “overwritten” at some point if the vehicle continues in use.

It is also important to retain a competent expert to download the data. In Laborde v. Shelter Mutual Insurance Co., 82 So. 3rd 1237 (La. 3/9/2011), the trial court excluded the printout of data downloaded from a Black Box because of the boxes “chain of custody” and the method the information downloaded.  It is important that your legal team knows how to obtain and preserve this evidence.

Data from Black Boxes can be useful in many ways. In some cases, it may help to prove that the accident involved a low impact or to show that no brakes were applied. In other cases, it may harm your position, but the data is almost always relevant. There are costs in downloading and interpreting the data. But in the right case, the secrets kept in the Black Box may be the only way to reveal the truth.

Brian has been doing defense work for the last 28 years. He has handled all types of defense matters over his career, but in recent years his practice has been focused in serious injury or damage cases and has worked extensively with experts involving complex cases, fire cases, and forensic work. 

Walking Drivers: A “Sudden” Defense to Rear-end Liability

A rear-end collision is a unique animal in the law. Plaintiff’s attorneys seek them out, and insurance companies fear them­­–sometimes for good reason.  The “rear-end” accident is unique because proof of the mere fact that one vehicle strikes the rear of another creates a strong legal presumption of fault under La. R.S. 32:81. While this presumption is formidable, it may be overcome.

Can a Corporation Drive Drunk?: A Look at Employer Liability for Punitive Damages

The power to punish is generally the role of the criminal courts. Civil courts concern themselves with making a plaintiff “whole.” In fact, it would be legal error for a civil court to impose recovery against a defendant as a form of punishment–with one notable exception. When “punitive damages” are allowed, a civil court may “punish” a defendant.