Court Rules Drivers Liable if Seat Belts Are Removed

Times Staff Writer

In a precedent-setting decision, a state appellate court has ruled that an automobile owner or driver may be liable if a passenger suffers injuries in a collision because the car was not equipped with seat belts--even if the driver or owner did not cause the accident.

The ruling Wednesday by the 4th District Court of Appeal overturned a May, 1983, decision by a San Diego Superior Court judge who ruled that an individual driver or car owner was not required by law to provide seat belts for passengers.

Candace Twohig was a passenger in a car driven by Janet Briner when Briner was involved in a collision in October, 1979. Briner was not at fault in the accident, but Twohig sued because she argued that the lack of seat belts in Briner's 1970 Volkswagen contributed to her injuries.

Briner's attorneys argued that Twohig had no legal grounds to sue because state law did not require a private owner or driver to have seat belts in a car. The trial judge agreed and threw out Twohig's suit in April, 1983. Briner did not deny that she had removed the seat belts after buying the car.

Twohig, a PSA flight attendant, appealed the judge's decision. In a brief filed before the appeal court by San Diego attorney James Warner, Twohig said she had a right to sue because she had a reasonable right to assume that the car she was riding in was safe. Twohig argued that Briner had breached her duty to maintain the car in safe operating condition when she removed the seat belts.

The justices agreed, noting: "Since the 'seat belt defense' in this state places the burden of 'buckling up' on the passenger, at minimum, an owner/operator should not remove installed auto safety belts."

Federal law has required manufacturers to install seat belts in all cars since Jan. 1, 1968.

According to the justices, Briner had "a statutory and common law duty to use reasonable and ordinary care to prevent increasing the danger of injury to a passenger." The appeal court further noted that Twohig's argument was not whether Briner should have provided seat belts but "whether removing seat belts breaches the duty of care owed a passenger."

In a brief filed by her attorneys, Briner contended that removing the seat belts was not unreasonable and argued that the injuries suffered by Twohig were not "reasonably foreseeable under the circumstances."

However, the justices ruled that because of the "circumstances of modern life," Briner "should have foreseen the probability of the very type of accident occurring here with 'second collision' injuries to her passenger."

A second collision is when an unrestrained occupant in a car is hurled inside a car or ejected in an accident. The court noted that 50,000 Americans die in auto accidents every year and about 2 million are injured. The justices quoted statistics that show drivers and passengers can reduce their chances of death or serious injury in an accident by as much as 60% simply by wearing seat belts.

Recently, the California Assembly passed a law requiring that all drivers and passengers wear seat belts while in a car. The legislation is pending in the state Senate.

Warner said that he will proceed with a lawsuit against Briner, seeking compensation for the broken leg and facial injuries Twohig suffered in the accident.

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