This past June, the nation was taken over by the news that Tracy Morgan, the hilariously funny comedian from NBC’s 30 ROCK, was involved in a horrific crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in the early morning hours of June 7th. Stories from every single media outlet reported that a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer struck a limo transporting Tracy Morgan and some of his friends, unfortunately passenger James McNair passed away. This collision caused an immediate investigation into the grueling world of tractor-trailer drivers and the somewhat relaxed regulations on tractor-trailers. (You can read our previous blog post about the trucking industry regulations here)
As expected attorneys for Tracy Morgan filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart in July. We are just now learning about the sad reality many involved in an auto accident face when there are no longer cameras and media outlets reporting on an accident. The reality that insurance companies will do and say just about anything to escape full liability, to escape paying for a wrong their insured committed. In Wal-Mart’s answer to the complaint, their attorneys allege as the Seventh Affirmative Defense, “Plaintiff’s injuries, if any, were caused in whole or in part, by plaintiff’s failure to properly wear an appropriate available seatbelt restraint device.” The Affirmative Defenses go on to state that had Tracy Morgan been wearing a seatbelt his injuries may not have happened or they would have been reduced, thus requesting that any damages, if any, awarded to Tracy Morgan be reduced because of his own fault.
Unfortunately, arguments and allegations such as the “seat belt” defense are very common and typical in auto accident litigation, even if there is no evidence to support such allegations. Many insurance companies will say or allege this defense to get out of paying for damages or at a minimum to get the damages reduced. However, what does this mean in an auto accident case? An Affirmative Defense requires the Defendant to prove that while the accident may have been caused by their driver, the injuries would not have occurred if the seat belt was utilized. If a jury were to believe the Defense’s position, it could reduce any damages by the percentage of fault of the injured party.
For the injured party in an auto accident, first make sure you are always wearing your seatbelt. Second, one must make sure it is well documented by witnesses and/or law enforcement on the scene that a seat belt was utilized. In the alternative, as it may be in Tracy Morgan’s case, seat belt may not have been available and even if they were the accident was so catastrophic that a seat belt would not have changed the injuries. The unfortunate part of Wal-Mart’s affirmative defense is that it takes away from the real negligence here – that a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer driver may have been violating Federal regulations as far as the amount of hours he was driving and awake, that he may have been speeding, and that ultimately Wal-Mart should pay Tracy Morgan and his family for the injuries he sustained.
Time will dictate how this case gets resolved. We may never know the actual monetary outcome, if any, that the Morgan family receives, as many cases are settled before reaching a jury and almost always require a confidentiality agreement precluding disclosure of the settlement amount. However, there is one truth, it is important to find an experienced and passionate law firm to handle any auto accident case, because as we can see here, the insurance company and defense attorneys will throw many allegations out there in an attempt to scare off the injured party.