Can I Recover if I’m Injured in an Accident While Not Wearing a Seat Belt?

Most Oregonians know by now that drivers and passengers in motor vehicles are generally required to wear safety belts. That is a good thing, given that the wide usage of seat belts has tremendously increased safety for America’s motoring public. But what happens if a motor vehicle occupant is injured while not wearing a seat belt? 

Some people worry that they will automatically be prevented from having the opportunity to recover for their injuries. It’s understandable why people would think this way - they conclude that because they were breaking the law, they will not have a legal remedy. But that is not always the case.

A close analysis of the facts and the law is required for any automobile accident. In this article, we will examine some important legal principles and discuss how a personal injury recovery is often possible, even for a person not wearing a seat belt in a car accident.

Seat Belt Usage and Seat Belt Law in Oregon

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the rate of usage of seat belts across America was 90.3 percent in 2020. NHTSA estimates that seat belts saved 14,955 lives in 2017.

Oregon Revised Statutes sections 811.210 to 811.225 address a number of seat belt/safety belt issues in Oregon, including the following:

  • Drivers must be secured with a safety belt or a safety harness.
  • Passengers in a motor vehicle must be properly secured.
  • Drivers are responsible to ensure passengers under 16 years of age are properly secured with a child safety system, safety harness, or safety belt.

The statutes address a variety of other issues, such as requirements for passengers in all-terrain vehicles on public lands and passengers in commercial vehicles.

Can I recover for personal injuries if I was not wearing a seat belt?

There is no law that specifically prevents a person from recovering personal injury damages based simply on the failure to wear a seat belt. The answer often comes down to determining who was negligent. This can be complicated when both parties are negligent.

Oregon Revised Statutes Section 31.600 codifies a principle called “comparative negligence.” The law provides that a plaintiff’s recovery is not barred if the plaintiff’s negligence does not exceed the negligence of all defendants (including third-party defendants and people with whom the plaintiff has reached a settlement).

Thus, while the failure to wear a seat belt could be considered negligent if it increased the severity of the plaintiff’s injuries, it still must be determined if the plaintiff’s negligence exceeds the negligence of the defendants. This requires a careful analysis of the facts. Let’s look at an example to illustrate.

Assume that Sandra is stopped at a red light. Michael is looking at his cell phone and doesn’t realize traffic has stopped. He crashes into the rear of Sandra’s car. She is severely injured. Unfortunately, just before the accident she had unhooked her seat belt to reach for something in the back seat. Michael is clearly liable for the accident. Even if a doctor opined that Sandra’s injuries were exacerbated by her failure to wear a seatbelt, it is unlikely that reasonable people would conclude that her negligence exceeded that of the defendant and she would be entitled to recover. 

As you can imagine, each case can be quite different. Many times, percentages of negligence are disputed questions of fact which must be determined by a jury. The important takeaway here is that often, plaintiffs are still entitled to recover on their claim.

Call with Questions

If you have been injured in a car accident, please call us for a free consultation. Even if you failed to wear your seat belt, or think that you shared in the negligence of the accident in other ways, it’s worth talking to us. You may still be entitled to recover under the law. The experienced personal injury attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield can evaluate the facts and help you determine how to proceed. We know that it is essential to hold people accountable for the harm that they cause so that everyone in Oregon will be safer.


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