Does Washington State have a Seat Belt Defense?

Author: Doug Baier

Guest Editor: Christopher Schon

April 1, 2019 12:51pm

Seat Belt Law RCW 46.61.688

In Washington State, state statute 46.61.688 requires the use of safety belts. According to the statute, “every person sixteen years of age or older operating or riding in a motor vehicle shall wear the safety belt assembly in a properly adjusted and securely fastened manner.”[1] Furthermore, no person may operate a motor vehicle unless all child passengers under the age of sixteen years are either (1) earing a safety belt assembly or (2) are securely fastened into an approved child restraint device.[2] A person who violates this section shall be issued a notice of traffic infraction under chapter 46.63 RCW.[3] If there is a finding a person committed this infraction, it shall be contained in the driver’s abstract but shall not be available to insurance companies or employers.[4]

Can the Non-use of a Safety Belt Be used in a Civil Action?

The statute regarding seat belts does limit the use of a violation. In fact, the statute specifically states, “Failure to comply with the requirements of this section does not constitute negligence, nor may failure to wear a safety belt assembly be admissible as evidence of negligence in any civil action.”[5] The next question becomes, is whether this can be asserted as a defense. The Washington State Court of Appeals, Division 2, addressed this issue in Clark v. Payne, 61 Wash.App. 189 (1991).

In Clark, a car accident occurred on Interstate 5 in Cowlitz County. The vehicle driven by the defendant Payne, struck the plaintiff’s vehicle from behind causing plaintiff’s vehicle to spin out of control and go off the roadway.[6] Because of the accident, plaintiff suffered severe injuries.[7] While the defendant admitted negligence, he raised as an affirmative defense plaintiff was contributory at fault for his failure to wear a seat belt.[8] The plaintiff admitted she had fully functional safety belts but she chose not to wear hers at the time of the accident.[9]

The defendant argued the mandatory safety belt statute bars the introduction of safety belt evidence to only show negligence, but not bar evidence to show contributory fault.[10] In Washington, contributory fault is defined as “acts or omissions … that are in any way negligent or reckless.[11] Additionally, the term also includes breach of warranty, unreasonable assumption of risk, and unreasonable failure to avoid injury or to mitigate damages.[12] The defendant argued the defense of unreasonable failure to avoid injury or to mitigate damages is not a contributory negligence defense, but rather a defense of contributory fault and evidence which supports such a defense would, therefore, be admissible even though evidence of negligence is bared.[13] The court disagreed.

Takeaway: Failure to Wear a Seat Belt is not Allowed as an Affirmative Defense

The court in Clark stated the seat belt statute does not define negligence and where unambiguous words are not defined within a statute, the court will usually ascribe to those words their plain and ordinary meaning.[14] While the Legislature chose to encourage safety belt use by enacting the mandatory safety belt statute; they also chose to limit the ramifications of failure to comply.”[15] Therefore, the court ruled the affirmative defense of plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt is not allowed under Washington law.[16][17]

 

[1] RCW 46.61.668(3)

[2] RCW 46.61.668(4)

[3] RCW 46.61.668(5)

[4] Id.

[5] RCW 46.61.668(6)

[6] Clark v. Payne, 61 Wash.App. 189, 191 (1991).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 192.

[11] RCW 4.22.005.

[12] RCW 4.22.015.

[13] Clark 61 Wash.App. at 192.

[14] Id. at 193.

[15] Id. at 194.

[16] Id. at 194-95.

[17] Of note, the court did state that, while there was merit to defendant’s argument from a public policy standpoint, changes in public policy are best lest to the Legislature as the branch of government most capable of receiving public input and resolving broad public policy questions. See Burkhart v. Harrod, 110 Wash.2d 381, 385–86, 755 P.2d 759 (1988). See Glass v. Stahl Specialty Company, 97 Wash.2d 880, 888, 652 P.2d 948 (1982).

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