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April 9, 2021 5:15 PM, EDT

Trucking Leaders Hail West Virginia Bill as Step Against 'Seat Belt Gag Rule'

Seat Belt Ziga Plahutar/Getty Images

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The West Virginia Legislature has passed a bill to allow use or nonuse of seat belts as admissible evidence in civil actions, a legislative step the trucking industry has applauded.

Specifically, the legislation, which was passed April 7, establishes the admissibility of evidence related to seat belt use with regard to a claimant’s damages. The bill states when a person making a claim for damages in a civil action was the driver of a passenger vehicle involved in a collision from which damages suffered by the claimant driver arose, evidence that the claimant driver was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the collision may be admissible in court. This evidence would be used to show that his or her failure to wear a seat belt exacerbated or contributed to the claimant driver’s damages, the bill states. The bill also includes a provision saying the defendant’s burden of proof must be supported by expert testimony.

The bill also extends to passengers. It states that when a person making a claim for damages was an adult passenger in a vehicle involved in a collision, evidence that the individual was not wearing a seat belt during the collision may be admissible in court. Here again, this evidence could show that failure to wear a seat belt exacerbated or contributed to the individual’s damages.

Trucking industry representatives hailed the legislation as a step in curbing lawsuit abuse. American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear has identified reforming the industry’s litigation environment as a goal.

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear

Spear

“The so-called seat belt gag rule is a perfect example of the sorts of rules that the plaintiffs’ bar exploits to stack the system in their favor,” Spear said. “Common sense measures like the bill passed today, which simply allows the jury to see that a litigant suing over medical bills wasn’t even wearing a seat belt, is an important step to help restore balance and fairness to a system that desperately needs it.”

The bill also outlines cases where seat belt use-related evidence is not admissible to show negligence. The bill states that when a person making a claim for damages was the driver of a passenger vehicle involved in a collision, evidence that the driver was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the collision is not admissible to show his or her negligence. Similarly, when a person making a claim for damages was an adult passenger in a vehicle involved in a collision, evidence that the person was not wearing a seat belt is not admissible to demonstrate negligence.

The prohibition of the admissibility of evidence provided in this section of the bill does not apply in an action against the manufacturer of the vehicle driven by the claimant, or the manufacturer of any component incorporated into the vehicle.

West Virginia’s seat belt law states it is unlawful for a person to operate a passenger vehicle on a public street or highway unless that person, any passenger in the back seat under age 18 and any passenger in the front seat of the vehicle is restrained by a safety belt meeting appropriate standards. According to the bill, the Governor’s Highway Safety Program will conduct an educational program designed to encourage compliance with seat belt usage laws.

“This program shall be focused on the effectiveness of safety belts, the monetary savings and the other benefits to the public from usage of safety belts and the requirements and penalties specified in this law,” the legislation states.

RoadSigns

Only 14.3% of the truck driver population is made up of African Americans, followed by 13% Hispanic, and 7% Asian. In this episode, host Michael Freeze wonders what industry leaders are doing to increase those percentages. We talk to two trucking industry experts who have implemented their own practices that are contributing to a more diverse work community. Hear a snippet, above, and get the full program by going to RoadSigns.TTNews.com.

This legislation follows another bill passed in March that marked a positive development for the trucking industry in West Virginia. The bill provided clarity for determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. The trucking industry hailed the bill as an important step in protecting the rights of independent contractors to earn a living.

According to West Virginia Trucking Association President Traci Nelson, trucking employs 38,000 West Virginians.

“While the plaintiffs’ bar sees trucks as rolling piggy banks to shake down, our lawmakers are reminded that trucking accounts for one out of every 15 jobs in West Virginia,” Nelson said. “We thank [House Judiciary Committee] Chairman [Moore] Capito and the legislature for taking well-reasoned steps to protect all West Virginians from the harm being caused by lawsuit abuse. Their leadership should be heeded by statehouses across the nation.”

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