Buckle Up! the Supreme Court of Georgia Provides Clarity to the State's Seatbelt Statute in Domingue v. Ford Motor Company

JurisdictionGeorgia,United States
Publication year2023
CitationVol. 74 No. 2

Buckle Up! The Supreme Court of Georgia Provides Clarity to the State's Seatbelt Statute in Domingue v. Ford Motor Company

Olivia Durkin

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Buckle Up! The Supreme Court of Georgia Provides Clarity to the State's Seatbelt Statute in Domingue v. Ford Motor Company


Olivia Durkin*


I. Introduction

Imagine a loved one being in a severe accident where the seatbelt did not work in the way it was intended. As a result, you decide to hold the car manufacturer accountable, alleging negligence in the seatbelt design. During the discovery process, the car manufacturer attempts to shield themselves from liability by either producing evidence or alluding to the fact your loved one was not wearing their seatbelt at the time of the accident. Such evidence would be harmful to your case; what can you do?

You are in luck. Georgia has a statute with a provision that the failure to wear a seatbelt cannot be considered as evidence of negligence or causation; otherwise be considered by a fact finder on any question of liability; be a basis for cancellation or increase in insurance; and cannot be used as evidence to diminish recovery.

This statute, commonly known as Georgia's "seatbelt" statute, has long been under fire by defendants alleging that such evidence should be permitted in trial.1 The most recent attack on the statute occurred in

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2022 in Domingue v. Ford Motor Co.2 In this case, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia certified three questions to the Supreme Court of Georgia asking the court to provide clarity on the statute.3 In its review, the court held that Official Code of Georgia Annotated section 40-8-76.1(d)4 does not preclude a defendant in an action alleging defective seatbelt design or manufacture from producing evidence related to the existence of seatbelts in the vehicle or those seatbelt's compliance with federal safety standards, but that O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) bars consideration of the failure of an occupant to wear a seatbelt for the purposes set forth in the statute.5

II. Factual Background

On March 27, 2020, a Jeep Wrangler struck the 2015 Ford SRW Super Duty Pickup truck in which the plaintiffs (Kristen and Casey Domingue) were riding.6 This was a serious "T-bone" collision where the driver's side of the plaintiffs' vehicle was hit, causing damage to both vehicles. In the course of the collision, the dashboard-airbag on the passenger side of the pickup truck failed to deploy, causing Kristen's head to hit the windshield. Kristen sustained serious injuries to her head, neck, and spine. The plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia against Ford Motor Company (Ford), alleging negligence in the defective design and manufacture of the subject airbag restraint system, and claiming injuries to Kristen and loss of consortium for Casey.7

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The plaintiffs filed a motion in limine with the trial court to exclude evidence "concerning the issue of whether [the] Plaintiff Kristen Domingue or [the] Plaintiff Casey Domingue were or were not wearing their seatbelts at the time of the subject collision."8 The plaintiffs contended that such evidence was not relevant to the case at bar and was precluded under O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d).9 Ford responded that evidence not related to the Domingues' actual seat belt use does not fall within the limits of O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) and that the Domingues' "defect allegations and expert testimony in this case . . . opened the door to the admission of all seat belt evidence."10 Additionally, Ford contended that

Given the interconnected designs of restraints and airbags, it is pragmatically impossible to try an alleged failed airbag deployment case[] without discussing the restraint system; that "it would be impossible to conclude that a differently designed airbag would be safer, or would not be more harmful, without considering occupant seatbelt use or nonuse;" and that O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) "would be unconstitutional as applied, infringing upon Ford's substantive due process and equal protection rights under both the Georgia and United States Constitutions" if the district court denied Ford the "fundamental right to show that [Kristen] Domingue was not using the primary component restraint system."11

The district court held a hearing to address the plaintiffs' motion in limine.12 Thereafter, the defendants filed a "motion for certified question."13 The district court subsequently certified three questions to

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the Supreme Court of Georgia regarding O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d). The Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously answered all three questions.14

The first question considered whether O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) precludes a defendant in an action alleging negligent system manufacture from producing evidence related to the existence of seatbelts in a vehicle as a part of the vehicle's passenger restraint system.15 The second question concerned whether O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) bars a defendant in an action alleging a defective restraint system from providing evidence related to the seatbelt's design and compliance with federal safety standards.16 The final question addressed whether O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) precludes a defendant in an action regarding defective restraint system design from producing evidence related to an occupant's nonuse of a seatbelt.17

In answering these questions, the Supreme Court of Georgia first concluded that O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) does not preclude a defendant in an action alleging a defective seat design from providing evidence related to the existence of seatbelts in the vehicle.18 Further, the court held that subsection (d) of the seatbelt statute does not preclude a defendant from producing evidence relating to the seatbelt's compliance with federal safety standards; however, it does preclude the consideration of a motor vehicle occupant's failure to wear a seatbelt, even as a part of the defendant-manufacturer's defense.19

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III. Legal Background

A. O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d): Georgia's Seatbelt Statute

O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1 generally concerns the use of safety belts in passenger vehicles.20 Subsection (d), the portion of the statute in dispute in the present case, provides parameters to what seat belt-related evidence can be used in litigation.21 Specifically, O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d) says:

The failure of an occupant of a motor vehicle to wear a seat safety belt in any seat of a motor vehicle which has a seat safety belt or belts shall not be considered evidence of negligence or causation, shall not otherwise be considered by the finder of fact on any question of liability of any person, corporation, or insurer, shall not be any basis for cancellation of coverage or increase in insurance rates, and shall not be evidence used to diminish any recovery for damages arising out of the ownership, maintenance, occupancy, or operation of a motor vehicle.22

In examining O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d), the court noted that "a statute draws its meaning from its text, 'to that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way.'"23

B. The Production of Evidence in Light of the Georgia Seatbelt Statute

In King v. Davis,24 a jury in Henry County, Georgia, found in favor Nita and Damond King (the Kings) regarding their personal injury claims against the defendant (Davis).25 The Kings appealed the Henry County State Court's decision to instruct members of the jury on the issue

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of damages to consider evidence of the Kings' failure to wear seatbelts.26 Specifically, the state trial court charged that "[w]hen considering damages, [jurors] may take into account evidence of [the Kings'] alleged failure to use an available seatbelt."27 In reviewing the jury instructions, the Georgia Court of Appeals determined that the jury instructions ran contrary to O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d), as the statute was intended to prohibit the use of evidence relating to a passenger's failure to wear a seatbelt "to diminish any recovery for damages."28 Furthermore, the Georgia Court of Appeals considered the Supreme Court of Georgia's recognition of an important legislative purpose in "ensur[ing] that those who cause vehicular collisions are not permitted to escape liability by raising the defense that the injured party was not wearing a seatbelt."29 The court reasoned that unlike other rules of evidence that permit the admission of evidence for a particular purpose, the legislative intent of the seatbelt statute was to bar evidence of seatbelt use in all instances.30 As such, the court determined that because the jury instructions were an incorrect statement of law and prejudiced the plaintiffs' case, a new trial was required with jury instructions that conformed to O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d).31

An earlier decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals, Crosby v. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.,32 addressed a similar issue. In June 1991, Bobby Crosby was driving with his wife Jan Crosby and his daughter to his parents' home when the left rear tire of his Ford Bronco II blew out, causing the vehicle to flip.33 Bobby Crosby was killed while his wife and daughter were seriously injured. Acting on behalf of herself and as the

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administratix of Bobby's estate, Jan Crosby brought an action against Cooper Tire & Rubber Company. She alleged negligent design and manufacture, failure to warn, violation of implied warranty of merchantability, and strict liability.34 Cooper Tire alleged that "under O.C.G.A. § 40-8-76.1(d), for the exclusion of evidence to apply, the occupant must not be wearing a seatbelt; otherwise, the exclusion does not apply."35 The Georgia Court of Appeals disagreed with Cooper Tire's assertion, holding that the General Assembly's intent when adopting the statute revealed that the statute was intended to...

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