Wright v. Hanley

In Wright v. Hanley, 182 W. Va. 334, 387 S.E.2d 801 (1989), Mr. Wright and Ms. Hanley were involved in a car accident on a street in Wheeling and both accused the other of running a red light and causing the accident. The parties presented evidence that suggested that Mr. Wright and his children passengers were not wearing seatbelts. Also, Ms. Hanley offered a jury instruction, given by the court, that the jury could consider Mr. Wright's failure to use seatbelts both in deciding damages and in assessing fault for the collision. The instruction at issue in Wright read, in part: If you believe that the failure of Mr. Wright to wear his safety belt was a negligent act on his part and further, if you believe that failure to wear the safety belt proximately caused or contributed to Mr. Wright's injuries, then you may consider this act of negligence as a factor in determining the amount of damages, if any, to be awarded to Mr. Wright and as a factor in assessing fault for the collision. (Wright, 182 W. Va. at 335, 387 S.E.2d at 802.) In its decision to reverse the lower tribunal, the Court considered the applicability of evidence of seatbelt usage both in determining negligence for the accident, and in determining the amount or extent of damages. After examining law from several jurisdictions, the Court rejected the defense argument that the common law duty to act with reasonable care extended to a duty to wear seatbelts. Noting that our Legislature had not yet acted on this issue, the Court stated: "Because of the continuing legislative debate over a mandatory automobile seat belt law, we decline to judicially impose a penalty on the occupant who chooses not to wear a seat belt and refrain from imposing a standard of conduct that the legislature has thus far been unsuccessful in imposing." While observing that a minority of states had found that such a common law duty existed, the Court held: "In the absence of mandatory seat belt legislation, no violation of a common law duty of reasonable care may be construed from failure to wear an automobile seat belt." Syl. pt. 1, Wright. This position is consistent with the long-standing theory that a common law practice will remain unless supplanted by statute or later Court decision. "Such parts of the common law as are not displaced by existing statutes, and have not been expressly repealed, are still in effect." Syl. pt. 5, Harper v. Middle States Loan, etc., Association, 55 W. Va. 149, 46 S.E. 817 (1904). The Wright Court went on to consider whether a defendant could offer evidence of a plaintiff's failure to wear a seatbelt to demonstrate that the plaintiff had failed to mitigate damages. The Court found persuasive the logic of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, which had stated "a plaintiff owes no duty to anticipate a defendant's negligence and to minimize damages by buckling up before the tortious impact occurs." Wright v. Hanley, 182 W. Va. 334, 337, 387 S.E.2d 801, 804 (1989)