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Wearing your seat belt isn't just a good idea, safety-wise; it's also generally required by law.
That being said, not everyone wears a seat belt all the time, whether because of forgetfulness or conscious choice. What happens when a person who is not wearing a seat belt is involved in an automobile accident and is injured?
Can you still sue if you weren't wearing a seat belt? The short answer is yes, but it may be more difficult to recover the full amount of your damages in some states.
Negligence Per Se
Negligence occurs when a person who owes a duty of reasonable care to another person violates that duty, causing injury to the person to whom the duty was owed. In an auto accident, proving which party was negligent in causing the accident can determine who is liable for the injuries caused by the accident.
Generally, when an accident involves a driver who is violating a safety law, that driver may considered negligent per se when the harm caused is the harm the law is intended to prevent. So when a driver is injured in a car accident while violating the law requiring that seat belts be worn to prevent or lessen injuries from auto crashes, that driver may be found negligent per se, depending on the rules of the state in which the accident occurs.
Even in states where failure to follow seat belt laws will not be considered negligence per se, a driver doing so may nevertheless be found negligent. That could make the driver at least partially at fault for his own injuries, even when another driver or individual was primarily at fault for causing the driver's injuries.
In states that follow a contributory negligence approach, any amount of negligence on the part of the injured person will prevent them from recovering any damages in a negligence lawsuit. This is the case even when the driver's own negligence was only a slight cause of his injuries.
However, in a majority of states, contributory negligence has been replaced by comparative negligence, which allows a driver who was partly negligent to nevertheless recover proportionate to his level of fault. In some states, this may be the case even if a driver's injuries were 95 percent caused by his own negligence. In states that follow a modified comparative negligence approach, a driver who is negligent for causing his own injuries may only recover damages if he was less than or equally as negligent as the person being sued.
To learn more about the legal process for recovering for car accident injuries, check out FindLaw's section on Car Accidents.