Court Buckles Down : Owner May Be Liable for Passenger Injury if Car Lacks Seat Belts

Times Staff Writer

In a precedent-setting decision, a state appellate court has ruled that an automobile owner or driver whose car is not equipped with seat belts may be liable if a passenger in the car is injured in an accident--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 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, arguing that the lack of seat belts in Briner’s car contributed to her injuries. Briner admitted that she had removed the seat belts after buying the car.

In a brief filed before the appeals court by San Diego attorney James Warner, Twohig, an airline flight attendant, 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.”

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 appeals 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.”


Federal law requires manufacturers to install seat belts in all new cars built after Jan. 1, 1968. A bill requiring all drivers and passengers to wear seat belts is pending in the state Legislature.

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.