Across the U.S., adults traveling in passenger vehicles are required to wear seat belts, with New Hampshire being the lone exception. Maryland statutes require those occupying either the front or rear seats of a traveling vehicle to wear a safety belt. Generally, law enforcement in Maryland may not stop a vehicle solely for an adult's failure to wear a seat belt; rather it is a “secondary” or “add-on” violation when an officer initiates a stop for a primary violation such as speeding or failing to obey traffic signals, etc.
In some states, a plaintiff who is not wearing a seat belt at the time of an accident could have their award for damages reduced in a case. In these jurisdictions, insurance adjusters or attorneys negotiating potential settlements may adjust their offers accordingly based on a “seat belt defense”. This is an example of when seat belt usage has been integrated into the process of assessing comparative fault and the proportionate calculation of damages.
Seat Belt Usage & Contributory Negligence
Maryland and Pennsylvania are among approximately 30 states that do not consider "seat belt defenses”. This means that failing to wear a seat belt will not be considered as a contributing factor to a party's allocation of negligence in an accident.
Some states have limitations or maximum amounts of contributory negligence that can be attributed for failing to wear a seat belt. For example, in Iowa and Michigan litigation, a party who fails to wear a seat belt can only have a maximum of 5% attributed to their overall negligence in the case.
Seat Belt Usage is Not Causal
A vehicle occupant's failure to wear a seat belt is not considered a proximate cause in an accident, meaning this decision has no role in increasing or decreasing the likelihood of accident occurrence. Injuries in an accident can be worsened when someone is not wearing a seat belt, which is one reason many states consider it a factor in determining fault and calculating damages. Maryland statute addresses seat belt usage in actions of civil liability by stating that a failure of a party to wear a seat belt will not:
- Be a consideration as evidence in determining negligence
- Be a consideration as evidence in contributing to negligence
- Serve to limit liability for any party
- Have an effect on recoverable damages
Seat Belt Evidence in Maryland Jury Trials
Since Maryland does not allow for determinations involving negligence to be influenced by whether or not a party was wearing a seat belt at the time of an accident, witnesses and counsel in trials are prohibited from making reference to seat belt usage. This applies to actions of personal injury, wrongful death, or property loss; however, in product liability claims such as those against auto manufacturers, designers, or suppliers for a seat-belt defect, this restriction is not applicable. The legislative intent was not to have juries influenced by seat belt usage, such as questioning the extent of what the injuries could have been etc.