The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that a jury should consider a person’s failure to use a seatbelt when determining damages for pain and suffering resulting from an automobile accident.
In Valdez v. Pringle, a jury found that Debbie Jo Pringle, the defendant in the trial court case, was at fault in causing an auto accident in which the plaintiff, Mark Valdez, suffered injuries. Valdez was riding in the front passenger’s seat of a vehicle driven by Pringle. When Pringle drove the car into a concrete barrier, he was thrown into the windshield and sustained injuries to his face. Multiple lacerations required surgical repair, and Valdez had further surgery for scar revision six months later.
Valdez brought action against Pringle, alleging negligence. He requested damages for impairment and disfigurement, and non-economic losses including inconvenience, emotional and impairment of quality of life. He initially requested damages for pain and suffering, but dropped that damage claim. Valdez admitted he was not wearing a seatbelt, which is required by law. And the state’s seatbelt defense provision provides for mitigation of pain and suffering damages for a plaintiff who was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of an auto accident.
Because Valdez was not wearing a seat belt, Pringle argued that the jury should have been instructed on the seatbelt defense because the term “pain and suffering” encompasses all forms of non-economic damages. But because Valdez did not claim damages for pain and suffering, but only for inconvenience, emotional stress and impairment to his quality of life, the trial court refused to instruct according to the seatbelt defense provision. The trial court said statute provided for the plaintiff to mitigate damages only for a claim of pain and suffering damages, but not other economic damages as claimed by Valdez. Pringle argued that physical impairment and disfigurement is not a separate category of damages from non-economic damages.
The jury awarded Valdez $400,000 for physical impairment and $100,000 for non-economic losses.
Pringle appealed, claiming, among other things, that the trial court improperly failed to give the seatbelt defense instruction, which would have permitted non-economic damages to be mitigated.
The court of appeals carefully considered the definition of “non-economic loss or injury.” The appeals court held that the phrase “pain and suffering” does not encompass all forms of non-economic damages, but rather denotes of subcategory of non-economic damages. Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court when it instructed the jury not to consider Valdez’s failure to wear a seatbelt in relation to claims for non-economic damages other than pain and suffering.
Pringle petitioned the state supreme court for certiorari review, to determine whether the appeals court correctly affirmed the jury’s damages award. Based on its review of the case, the supreme court held that the non-economic damages of $100,000 awarded to Valdez for inconvenience, emotional stress and impairment of the quality of life are included in the meaning of “pain and suffering” under the seatbelt defense provision.
“The jury should have been instructed that it was required to consider Valdez’s failure to use a seatbelt to mitigate, or reduce, these allegations of damages,” the court wrote.
However, the high court also held that an award for physical disfigurement and impairment is not subject to the mitigation under the seatbelt defense provision. It affirmed that $400,000 awarded to Valdez for physical impairment and disfigurement.
For more information, visit www.cobar.org/opinions/opinion.cfm?opinionid=6395&courtid=2.
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