E.R. Wright

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While the COVID-19 crisis has forced societies and governments to confront new challenges and answer new questions, it has also renewed and reignited longstanding debates about the extent of individuals’ obligations to each other. In particular, the American body politic is once again embroiled in conflict over the reach of an individual’s personal choices and the extent to which consideration of the potentially harmful effects of our choices on others should shape individual behaviors. Today, this fight centers on public health measures intended to reduce the spread and severity of COVID-19, such as masking, distancing, and vaccination. Debates rage over where the freedom of individual choice—a nearly-sacred tenant of the gospel of American exceptionalism—intersects with and must yield to the interests of others. Governments at all levels have largely responded to the current crisis with ad hoc improvisation and strained efforts to balance public health imperatives against real and imagined threats to individual liberty. ...

This Article examines one example of the immunity grants that legislative bodies too often bake into laws passed to address public safety emergencies: prohibition of the seatbelt defense. The Article begins by explaining the theory behind the defense and tracing the history of the passage of seatbelt mandate laws that incorporate prohibition of the defense. It then illustrates scenarios in which banning the defense creates breakdowns of fundamental tort principles and undermines justice. Next, the Article discusses the original justifications offered by opponents of the seatbelt defense and highlights the ways behavioral and technological changes have rendered those justifications empty. Finally, the Article argues that piecemeal, limited exemptions to bans on the seatbelt defense are ineffective and therefore, the Article advocates for full reinstatement of the seatbelt defense.