Failure to Wear Seat Belts: Proposed Legislation and the 5% Cap on Comparative Fault in Iowa

In a cause of action brought to recover damages arising out of the ownership or operation of a motor vehicle, the failure to wear a seatbelt or safety harness by the plaintiff will not be considered evidence of comparative fault per Iowa Code § 668.3(1)See Iowa Code § 321.445 (4)(b) (2013).  This evidence may be admitted to mitigate damages, except as provided per Iowa Code § 321.446(6); and only under the following circumstances: 1) the party (defendant) wishing to introduce evidence of the failure to wear a seatbelt or safety harness must first introduce substantial evidence showing plaintiff’s failure to wear a seatbelt or safety harness contributed to his/her injury; and 2) if the evidence supports this finding, the failure to wear the seatbelt or safety harness may be used to reduce plaintiff’s recovery by no more than 5% (after reductions for comparative fault).  See Iowa Code § 321.445(4)(b)(1-2) (2013).

The Iowa Legislature has dealt with a series of unsuccessful study bills attempting to eliminate the 5% comparative fault cap found in Iowa Code § 321.445(4)(b)(2), among other things.  More recently, Iowa H. Study Bill 60, 85th Gen. Assembly, 1st Sess. (Jan. 24, 2013) (hereinafter H.S.B. 60) was introduced in the Iowa Legislature.  H.S.B. 60 proposed to amend Iowa Code § 321.445(4)(b).  Specifically, H.S.B. 60 was created so that evidence of the plaintiff’s failure to wear a safety belt or safety harness would now be considered evidence of comparative fault per Iowa Code § 668.3 (1).  H.S.B. 60 was also created with purposes to: 1) eliminate the statutory 5% cap on reduction of damages by completely striking Iowa Code § 321.445(4)(b)(2); 2) allow the jury to determine a more appropriate reduction in damages; and 3) eliminate the prohibition of such evidence of a plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt; a safety harness; and/or a child restraint system by completely striking Iowa Code § 321.446(6).  This would have allowed the introduction of this evidence to constitute negligence and be admissible as evidence in a civil action.  The defendant would still have to introduce substantial evidence showing the plaintiff’s failure to wear a safety belt or safety harness contributed to the injury or injuries that plaintiff sustained.  However, H.S.B. 60 did not pass.  In fact, this is not the first time a study bill proposing to eliminate the 5% limitation did not pass.  Earlier versions have been introduced and they failed to pass as well.

Currently, the 5% limitation in Iowa Code § 321.445(4)(b)(2), as well as Iowa Code § 321.446(6), both remain in effect and good law in Iowa.  With that in mind, a defendant must remember critical requirements when attempting to mitigate damages.  Before a failure-to-mitigate claim is submitted, the defendant must introduce substantial evidence that:

(1) there was something the plaintiff could have done to mitigate his loss, (2) requiring the plaintiff to do so was reasonable under the circumstances, (3) the plaintiff acted unreasonably in failing to undertake the mitigating activity, and (4) a causal connection exists between the plaintiff’s failure to mitigate and the damages claimed.  The defendant shoulders the burden of proving these four elements of the defense.

Vasconez v. Mills, 651 N.W.2d 48, 53-54 (Iowa 2002) (citations omitted).

Lastly, the potential reasoning behind the continued use of this statute, especially the 5% limitation; and the failure of H.S.B. 60 being adopted may be seen in Duntz v. Zeimet, 478 N.W.2d 635 (Iowa 1991) (hereinafter Zeimet).     In Zeimet, the Iowa Supreme Court majority held “…without the five percent limitation in section 321.445(4)(b)(2), evidence of nonuse could actually prevent an otherwise innocent plaintiff from recovering anything.”  478 N.W.2d 635, 637 (citing Meyer v. City of Des Moines, 475 N.W.2d 181, 190 (Iowa 1991) (emphasis added)).  The Court followed up by explaining that this limitation will ensure fairness within Iowa’s comparative fault statute.  See Zeimet, 478 N.W.2d at 637.  Finally, the Iowa Supreme Court held “that the statutory five percent limitation is not arbitrary but bears a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental interest and therefore does not offend equal protection.”  Id.    

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