A single-car crash last weekend near Arlington is drawing attention to the laws and legal issues surrounding seat belt use here in Oregon.
According to a report in The Oregonian the Interstate-84 fatal Oregon car crash took place in the early hours of Sunday morning, near milepost 132 when a 1999 Chevrolet SUV traveling in the westbound lane “for unknown reasons… left the roadway and crashed through the guardrail on the north side of the freeway.” The vehicle’s driver “was taken by Life Flight to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Washington, and he died on the way, according to state police.”
The vehicle also was carrying a passenger, a 23-year-old Portland man. According to the newspaper he was taken the OHSU hospital where he was admitted in critical condition.
Citing police investigators, The Oregonian reports that neither man was wearing a seat belt and that both were thrown from the SUV in the course of the crash. This is where the possible legal issues surrounding this single-vehicle crash become noteworthy. It is conceivable that the surviving passenger could have a claim against the late driver’s estate. Were such a suit to be filed, Oregon’s comparative fault doctrine might come into play. Oregon Code 31.760.1 states that:
“In an action brought to recover damages for personal injuries arising out of a motor vehicle accident, evidence of the nonuse of a safety belt of harness may be admitted only to mitigate the injured party’s damages The mitigation shall not exceed five percent of the amount to which the injured party would otherwise be entitled.”
As an Oregon car crash victims’ attorney, this means, in plain English, that while any damages the passenger might win from the driver’s estate could be reduced by 5%, the ultimate responsibility for the accident still lies with the person behind the wheel, particularly if that person is driving on too little sleep (the crash occurred around 4:30 am and The Oregonian notes that police cited “fatigue” as a possible factor). First and foremost, a driver is responsible for the safety of his or her passengers. A passenger choosing not to wear his or her seat belt does not fundamentally change that fact.