Lessons from Actor Comedian Tracy Morgan’s Failure to Wear a Seatbelt v. Walmart

tracy morgan in 2009 at promotion for his book

Tracy Morgan (a)

Do we want to live in a community that condones blaming the victim instead of owning up to our mistakes? When a company in the business of operating fully loaded tractor-trailers violates safety rules intended to protect motorists, is it ok to blame the victim for the non-use of a seatbelt?

By now, many of us have heard the story about how a Walmart truck driver fell asleep at the wheel because he apparently was driving too many consecutive hours for Walmart without taking a necessary safety break, and that truck driver crashed into the limousine bus occupied by actor-comedian Tracy Morgan and four others. As a result of the collision, Morgan suffered serious and permanent injuries.(1) Tragically, one of the other passengers died.

Instagram shot of Tracy Morgan Accident by Charlie Benjumea

An Instagram shot of the accident. (b)

Now, Morgan brought a lawsuit against the truck driver and Walmart. In response, the retail giant blamed Morgan for failure to properly wear an appropriately available seat belt restraint device.(2) Morgan replied, “I can’t believe Walmart is blaming me for an accident that they caused.”(3)

In 1984, the United States Department of Transportation amended the Federal Motor Vehicle Standard 208 to mandate all cars be equipped with passive safety restraint systems.(4) Many states subsequently enacted mandatory seat belt use statutes.(5) Use of the “seat belt defense” by Walmart represents an attempt to either shift the blame, as Morgan states, or is an attempt by a defendant to reduce the amount of compensation that an injured victim can ultimately receive. The use of this defense is dictated by the state in which the dispute arises.

Currently, Massachusetts does not have a statute that directly addresses whether seat-belt use is barred as evidence for the purpose of putting blame on the non-seatbelt user for his or her injuries.(6) In cases where the issue has been in dispute, a 1992 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case provides guidance in its ruling that an at-fault driver must present evidence that shows that the non-seatbelt user’s injuries could have been averted or minimized if a seat belt had been used.(7)

Trucking companies need to enforce safety rules that require truck drivers to get enough sleep so they do not fall asleep at the wheel. When the trucking companies ignore these rules (presumably to prioritize profit over safety) and tired truck drivers barrel into innocent motorists and passengers, the trucking companies need to take responsible for all the harms caused to the victims.

When tired truck drivers crash into innocent motorists even those with properly secured seat belts can suffer serious injury. For example, passengers have suffered serious injuries when the force from a collision causes the seat belt to lock and tear through the passenger’s abdomen.

In both scenarios, no injuries would occur but for the unnecessarily dangerous choices made by the trucking company and the tired truck driver.

Walmart needs to accept responsibility fully for the damage caused Morgan and the other passengers. Unless Walmart stops blaming the victims and drops its “seat belt defense” Walmart has not accepted responsibility and cannot right its wrongs.

Sources:

(1)Joseph Stepansky, et. al., “Tracy Morgan critically injured in New Jersey crash allegedly caused by truck driver now charged with death by auto,” New York Daily News, June 7, 2014, http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/tracy-morgan-critically-injured-new-jersey-crash-article-1.1820672

(2)Topher Gauk-Roger and Kevin Conion, “Tracy Morgan: I can’t believe Walmart is blaming me,” CNN, September 30, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/29/justice/tracy-morgan-crash/

(3)Id.

(4)Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, 49 C.F.R. § 571.208.

(5)See 49 C.F.R. § 571.208.

(6)AAJ cite. Currently, 23 states have statutes that make the use of a seat-belt inadmissible as evidence.

(7)Shahzade v. Mabardy, 411 Mass. 788, 796 (1992).

Photo Sources:

(a)Tracy Morgan – By David Shankbone (Photographer’s blog post about photo and event) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

(b)The Accident – by Charlie Benjumea via Instagram http://instagram.com/p/o72E4YBlxE/

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