Court: Paralyzed Car Accident Plaintiff Not Injured By Alleged Failure to Wear Seatbelt - Henry v. Hoelke
Plaintiff Egline Henry was paralyzed when the car she was driving with her three-year-old daughter and a friend was struck by Defendant Jena Hoelke's vehicle as Defendant made a left into oncoming traffic. At trial, Plaintiff indicated that she did not brake before the impact because didn't see the other car until the collision. According to the court, "[t]he force of the impact caused Plaintiff's vehicle to rotate in different directions, roll over, and eventually come down on the driver's side." As a result of the accident, Plaintiff suffered a dislocated vertebrae which pinched her spinal cord and rendered her paralyzed.
Defendant argued that Plaintiff was at least partially liable for her injuries because she was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. Although both Plaintiff and her adult passenger testified that she was in fact wearing a seatbelt when the collision occurred, Co-Defendant Stephen McCulloch testified that he did not see Plaintiff wearing a seatbelt after the accident. Furthermore, an expert testified that Plaintiff's medical records did not show the type of bruising or abrasions in areas that would indicate that she was wearing a seatbelt. However, the expert indicated that he could not rule out the possibility that she was wearing a seatbelt. He also said that Plaintiff could have suffered the same injuries if she had been wearing a seatbelt, adding "seat belts in vehicles can't protect occupants in rollovers because they were designed for frontal collisions."
The trial court denied Plaintiff's motion for a directed verdict, in which she argued that Defendant failed to introduce sufficient evidence to argue that Plaintiff was not wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident and that this caused her injuries. Defendant, on the other hand, argued that a jury could infer that Plaintiff was not belted based on the testimony of McCulloch and the expert. The trial court denied the motion for directed verdict. The jury attributed 65% negligence to Defendant and 35% negligence to Plaintiff and awarded Plaintiff more than $4 million in damages.
On appeal, the Fourth District reversed the trial court's decision on the directed verdict motion, finding that there was not competent evidence linking Plaintiff's injuries and her alleged failure to wear a seatbelt. Citing its 1994 decision in Zurline v. Levesque, the court held that "for a defendant to submit a seatbelt defense to the jury, the defendant must present competent evidence that plaintiff's failure to wear the seatbelt caused or substantially contributed to her injuries." In this case however, the court found that Defendant failed to introduce "any" evidence showing that Plaintiff was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident because both McCulloch and the expert testified that they were not sure whether she was belted. Furthermore, even if she were not wearing a seatbelt, "Defendant failed to present competent evidence establishing that Plaintiff's failure to wear her seatbelt caused her injuries." As a result, the court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the trial court for entry of a directed verdict in Plaintiff's favor.