Jacob E. Daly

Publication Date


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Special Contribution


For a doctrine of common-law origin, the seat-belt defense is a relatively youthful fifty years old. Credit for the first use of this defense has been attributed to the defendant in Stockinger v. Dunisch, a 1964 case in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, in which the plaintiff's damages were reduced by 10% based on the jury's finding that she was negligent for failing to use a seat belt. Despite this initial success, most states have rejected the defense, some legislatively and others judicially, and therefore exclude evidence of a plaintiffs failure to use an available seat belt. The Georgia Court of Appeals first recognized the defense in 1970 and explicitly adopted it in 1987, but the Georgia General Assembly paradoxically abolished the defense in 1988 while at the same time mandating the use of seat belts by front-seat occupants of passenger vehicles. Since then, evidence of a plaintiff's failure to use an available seat belt has not been admissible in tort lawsuits for any purpose. This Article argues that the reasons typically given for excluding such evidence are no longer valid, and so the General Assembly should reinstate the seat-belt defense. Ultimately, the seat-belt defense is a matter of fairness because a defendant should not be liable for damages that the plaintiff could have avoided easily by the simple act of buckling up.