A Seatbelt Defense Refuted
Case Synopsis: A semi-tractor trailer ran a red traffic light at an intersection and struck a pickup truck on its front right side. Both vehicles were reportedly traveling at around 50 mph. The collision caused the pickup truck to rotate approximately 90-degrees counterclockwise, ejecting the driver of the pickup truck through the passenger side window. After the pickup truck was redirected, it traveled another 200 feet down the shoulder, off the road, and collided head-on into a tree, causing the airbags to deploy. The driver of the pickup truck [the plaintiff] testified that he was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the incident. The police also reported that the plaintiff was wearing his seatbelt. The plaintiff incurred injuries, including a closed head injury.
Based upon the plaintiff being ejected and a photograph of the driver’s side seatbelt, defense experts opined that the plaintiff was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the incident. Defense experts further opined that had the plaintiff been restrained, he would not have been ejected.
Expert Analysis: The defense experts relied on a photograph of the driver’s seatbelt taken from the passenger side of the vehicle that only showed the portion of the belt from the d-ring down to the seat cushion. The portion of the belt that was down along the side of the seat was not visible in the photograph. The defense experts concluded that because the latch plate was up against the d-ring and the belt was in a fully retracted position that it had not been worn. A closer examination of the photograph of the driver’s side belt revealed that the belt was twisted where it passed through the latch plate and that the fold in the belt was holding the latch plate up against the d-ring which would be consistent with the belt being worn at the time of the incident. In addition, a police officer testified that after the collision the belt was hanging and the latch plate was not up against the d-ring. It was also determined that the photograph of the driver’s side belt was taken after the truck had been moved back onto the road and, therefore, the condition of the belt immediately after the incident may not have been what is depicted in the photograph. Because the pickup truck was unavailable for inspection, it was not possible to examine the seatbelt. Based upon the available evidence, the defense failed to prove that the seatbelt was not being worn at the time of the incident.
Relative to the plaintiff’s injuries, the defense experts failed to consider that the plaintiff’s pickup truck was subjected to two separate collisions, the first collision with the tractor semitrailer and the second with the tree. During the first collision the forces were significant enough that the plaintiff was thrown across the vehicle’s interior and ejected through the passenger’s side window. Had the seatbelt restrained the plaintiff during this collision, the plaintiff’s upper body would have still moved towards the right side of the pickup truck while the lap portion of the belt would have restrained his lower body creating a potential for significant injuries to the plaintiff’s spine. It was also possible that the seatbelt would not have prevented the plaintiff’s head from contacting the interior of the vehicle because his upper body would have moved to the right and away from the shoulder restraint. The second collision, with the tree, resulted in significant front end damage to the pickup truck and caused the airbags to deploy. Had the plaintiff remained in the vehicle after the first collision, it is probable that he would have been out of position when the airbags deployed and would have been at significant risk of serious and/or fatal injuries as a result of contact with the vehicle’s interior or as a result of being in the deployment zone of the airbags. It was determined, to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty, that under the incident circumstances, the plaintiff would have been at significant risk of serious and/or fatal injuries, regardless of whether or not he was restrained.