In many states, a defendant in an auto accident case can use what is called “the seatbelt defense.” It is contributory negligence, or comparative negligence, to not wear a seatbelt – if you are in an accident and you are not buckled up, it could reduce the amount of your damages or even cause you to lose your case. 

But not in SC – although SC has a mandatory seatbelt law, the law also says that the failure to wear a seatbelt is not evidence of contributory negligence, it is not negligence per se, and it is not admissible in court. SC does not have a seatbelt defense in auto accident cases. 

What is comparative negligence and does not wearing a seatbelt have any effect on your auto accident claim in SC? 

SC has a Mandatory Seatbelt Law, but a Violation is Not Evidence of Negligence

SC Code Section 56-5-6520, passed into law in 1989, makes seatbelt use mandatory in SC:

The driver and every occupant of a motor vehicle, when it is being operated on the public streets and highways of this State, must wear a fastened safety belt which complies with all provisions of federal law for its use. The driver is charged with the responsibility of requiring each occupant seventeen years of age or younger to wear a safety belt or be secured in a child restraint system as provided in Article 47 of this chapter…

SC Code Section 56-5-6540 says that the failure to wear a seatbelt is punishable by a $25 fine, but it is not a criminal offense:

A person who is adjudicated to be in violation of the provisions of this article must be fined not more than twenty-five dollars, no part of which may be suspended. No court costs, assessments, or surcharges may be assessed against a person who violates a provision of this article. A person must not be fined more than fifty dollars for any one incident of one or more violations of the provisions of this article. A custodial arrest for a violation of this article must not be made, except upon a warrant issued for failure to appear in court when summoned or for failure to pay an imposed fine. A violation of this article does not constitute a criminal offense.

What’s more, a seatbelt violation must not be:

  • Recorded on a person’s driving record;
  • Reported to their insurance company; or
  • Used as probable cause to search a person’s vehicle. 

When passing the seatbelt law, the SC legislature went even further and expressly stated that not wearing a seatbelt “is not negligence per se or contributory negligence and is not admissible as evidence in a civil action.” 

What is Contributory Negligence – What is Comparative Negligence? 

Is there a difference between contributory negligence and comparative negligence? 

People often use the two terms interchangeably, but there is a difference. Contributory negligence means that a plaintiff is completely barred from recovery if they were at fault in any way, even if the defendant’s negligence was greater than theirs. Most states have abolished contributory negligence and switched to some form of comparative negligence. 

Comparative negligence, on the other hand, is where each party’s negligence is compared to the others’ and each party pays their share of the damages based on their percentage of negligence. 

Up until 1991, SC followed a strict contributory negligence rule, where “if the negligence of the plaintiff contributed in any respect to his damages, he was completely barred from recovering against a defendant guilty of even greater negligence.” 

If a jury found that you were even partially at fault for the accident, you lost your case… 

In 1991, however, the SC Supreme Court announced a modified comparative negligence rule – if the plaintiff’s negligence is not more than 50%, the plaintiff can still recover but any verdict will be reduced by the percentage that the plaintiff was at fault:

For all causes of action arising on or after July 1, 1991,[1] a plaintiff in a negligence action may recover damages if his or her negligence is not greater than that of the defendant. The amount of the plaintiff’s recovery shall be reduced in proportion to the amount of his or her negligence. If there is more than one defendant, the plaintiff’s negligence shall be compared to the combined negligence of all defendants.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this could apply to someone’s failure to wear a seatbelt. For example:

  • Driver 1 causes an accident;
  • Driver 2 is injured when his head strikes the windshield;
  • Driver 1’s expert witness testifies that Driver 2 would not have suffered the injuries if he had been wearing a seatbelt; therefore
  • Driver 2’s comparative negligence is greater than 50% and Driver 2 recovers nothing. 

It Is Not Comparative Negligence to Not Wear a Seatbelt in SC

Because of this, the SC legislature made it clear that it is not comparative negligence to not wear a seatbelt. 

Although the legislature stated that a violation of the seatbelt law is not contributory negligence, they also expressly stated that a violation of the seatbelt law “is not admissible as evidence in a civil action,” which shuts down use of the statute for any purpose including comparative negligence. 

Failure to wear a seatbelt is not admissible for any purpose in a civil action. For example, when a mother sued a child’s father for not properly securing the child before an auto accident, the SC Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment, dismissing the mother’s lawsuit because the father’s failure to secure the child in a seatbelt was not admissible as evidence in the case. 

It is Not Negligence Per Se to Not Wear a Seatbelt in SC

Ordinarily, the violation of a SC statute or traffic law would be negligence per se, but SC’s seatbelt laws also expressly state that a violation of the seatbelt law is not negligence per se. It is not admissible in any civil action, it is not evidence of negligence, and it cannot be the basis for a negligence per se claim. 

It Wasn’t Contributory Negligence Before SC Had a Seatbelt Law

Before SC passed a seatbelt law in 1989, the SC Supreme Court held that it was not contributory or comparative negligence to not wear a seatbelt in SC. 

In Keaton v. Pearson, in 1997, the SC Supreme Court found that where the plaintiff was not wearing a seatbelt, her injuries were caused when her chin struck the steering wheel, and an expert witness testified that “if Keaton had been wearing her seat belt she would not have struck her chin on the steering wheel when the impact occurred,” “a plaintiff’s failure to use a seat belt does not constitute contributory negligence or a preinjury failure to minimize damages.”

The Court’s reasoning was that it was the legislature’s place “to impose upon the people of our state the duty to wear a seat belt,” and not the Court’s. When the legislature did pass a seatbelt law two years later, however, they included language that ensured there would be no seatbelt defense in SC. 

Auto Accident Attorneys in Myrtle Beach, SC

If you have been injured in a car accident caused by someone else’s negligence, you are entitled to full and fair compensation – even if you were not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. 

Call Coastal Law now at (843) 488-5000 or message us through our website to speak with an experienced auto accident attorney in Myrtle Beach today. 

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