Montana Enhanced Injury Case Places Evidence of Seat Belt Usage Directly at Issue

In an enhanced or second injury case, the plaintiff claims that although the initial incident or accident caused him to suffer only minor injuries, the defective design and/or manufacture of a particular product caused him to suffer additional injuries.  The theory is that but for the negligent design or manufacture, the plaintiff would have walked away with only minor injuries.

This was the plaintiff’s theory of the underlying case at issue in Stokes v. The Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court, — P.3d —-, 2011 WL 3304510 (Mont. August 1, 2011).  A man named Peter Carter was killed after being involved in a car accident during which the vehicle he was driving rolled over.  Plaintiff Stokes filed a wrongful death and survival action on behalf of Carter’s estate against the car’s manufacturer (Ford), the rental car agency that rented Carter the vehicle (Overland West, Inc.) and the driver of the other car involved in the accident (Todd Durham).   Durham admitted that he caused the initial accident.  Stokes’ theory against the other two defendants was that “the initial impact caused only minor injuries, but the seat belt in the vehicle slackened and spooled out during the rollover, allowing Carter to be partially ejected from the vehicle and causing his fatal head injury.”  The case was brought on theories of negligence and strict liability against both defendants.

The fact that the plaintiff pleaded both negligence and strict liability in the case was problematic for the trial court, which didn’t think a jury was smart enough to distinguish between the two of them.  In Montana, evidence of seat belt use (or lack thereof) is admissible in product liability claims, but not in negligence claims.  So, “The court thus informed Stokes that if he planned on using evidence of seat belt use or non-use in his strict liability claims against Ford and Overland, he would be required to drop his negligence claims against all three defendants.”

So much for alternative pleading in Montana.

Stokes then petitioned the Montana Supreme Court for supervisory control, based on the fact that, basically, he should be permitted to assert both causes of action.  First, the Court considered whether or not the case was appropriate for the exercise of supervisory control.  Deciding in the affirmative, the Court then turned to the issue of whether evidence of seat belt use was precluded in either the strict liability or product liability cause of action.

The applicable Montana statute, The Montana Seat Belt Use Act, states that evidence of compliance or non-compliance with the mandatory seat belt law is not admissible “in any civil action for personal injury or property damage resulting from the use or operation of a motor vehicle,” and failure to comply with the seat belt use law does not constitute negligence.

Ford contended that all evidence of such use or non-use should be excluded, or that at the very least, such evidence should be inadmissible in the negligence cause of action.  Stokes had a different argument, modeled on the theories underlying negligence and product liability principles.  Citing a prior case, he argued that the statute “bars proof of seat belts in a claim for negligence,” where the focus is on the parties’ conduct, but “does not apply to product liability claims,” where the focus is on the condition of the product.

An interesting argument in most cases.  In this case, however, as the Court pointed out, the seat belt was placed directly at issue by the plaintiff’s claim that the seat belt system was defective, and caused the enhanced injury of the decedent after the initial accident.

With this in mind, the Montana Supreme Court held that evidence relating to Carter’s use of a seat belt was not prohibited under either cause of action, in the context of its bearing on the condition of the seat belt restraint system.  The Court did hold, however, that a limiting instruction for the jury was appropriate “to ensure the evidence is used only for this purpose.”

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