Can I Recover Damages If I Wasn’t Wearing a Seatbelt?

One of the first questions your insurance company will ask you after a collision is, “Were you and your passengers wearing seatbelts at the time of the crash?” If your answer is no, you might fear that this will interfere with your ability to recover compensation for the accident – even if you weren’t at fault. Luckily, this likely won’t be the case. You can still recover damages if you weren’t wearing your seatbelt in Tennessee. Here’s what to know about the state’s comparative negligence laws and seatbelt use, or lack thereof.

Tennessee’s Seatbelt Laws

First, understand what the law in Tennessee says about wearing your seatbelt while driving. As in most states, wearing a seatbelt is mandatory while driving or riding in a motor vehicle. Tennessee Code Section 55-9-603 describes the state’s seatbelt law, stating that no person shall operate a motor vehicle in the state unless the driver and his/her passengers four years and older are wearing safety belts while the vehicle is in motion. Everyone in the vehicle must be strapped into a safety belt at all times.

The state’s seatbelt law has been in place since 1986. Violators can receive traffic citations and fines ($25 for first offense, $50 for subsequent violations). You might receive a citation and fine for breaking the seatbelt law if you weren’t wearing one in a car accident. The reporting police officer may issue the citation upon learning or finding evidence that you’ve broken the state’s seatbelt statute. However, the defendant typically cannot use the fact of your failure to wear one against you during a personal injury or insurance claim. Tennessee law forbids it.

Tennessee’s Comparative Fault Laws and Special Seatbelt Exemption

Tennessee is a “comparative fault” state. This means that a crash victim could still be eligible for recovery even if he or she was partially at-fault for the accident. For example, if the other driver rear-ended you but you had a taillight out, the courts might assign you a percentage of fault for the accident. In this example, you would receive $80,000 of a $100,000 reward if the courts assigned you 20% fault for the broken taillight.

In a collision involving someone who was not wearing a seatbelt, it can seem reasonable to argue that since the person broke the law and should have been wearing one, he or she at least partially contributed to the extent of his/her injuries (if they would not have been as severe with the use of a seatbelt). In some states, this is a viable argument that could reduce the plaintiff’s compensation award. Tennessee, however, has a specific statute that bars defendants from using lack of seatbelt wearing as proof of contributory negligence in car accident claims.

Tennessee Code Section 55-9-604 states that the failure to wear a safety belt is not admissible evidence in a civil action unless the plaintiff has filed a products liability claim. A defendant that wishes to use non-compliance with the state’s seatbelt law as evidence against the plaintiff must offer evidence that is consistent with this chapter in a timely manner. In the majority of Tennessee car accident cases, however, failure to wear a seatbelt will not work against the plaintiff.

How to Handle Your Claim

Contact an attorney for assistance if you know you weren’t wearing a seatbelt in a recent car accident and worry that this fact may come back to hurt your chances of recovering damages. The odds are slim that it will affect your case, but special situations do exist where the courts might reduce your award or even bar you from recovery.

Talking to an attorney can ease your mind about your lack of seatbelt use during car insurance claim negotiations or a civil lawsuit against the other driver. Legal representation can minimize the odds that a broken seatbelt law could interfere with your recovery.