The Minnesota Supreme Court released an opinion last week, stating that an exception to Minnesota’s seat belt gag rule permitted a three year-old child to sue his parents for not properly buckling his seat belt. The suit contended that the parents failed to discover and remove a coin from the buckle mechanism of the child’s car seat. The suit was brought on behalf of the child by his grandparents, presumably with their consent and encouragement.
The facts of this case are unimaginable. This boy’s seatbelt came off when the SUV his father was driving was struck by an uninsured motorist. Their SUV flipped and the boy’s car seat became unbuckled. The boy is now a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair and will require 24-hour care for the rest of his life. It is not easy to conjure up a greater tragedy.
Minnesota has a law that makes the Plaintiff’s failure to wear a seat belt inadmissible at trial. As I have written in the past, Maryland has a similar law on seat belt use admissibility at trial. A claim was brought and settled against the parents and the manufacturer of the restraint system, based on the Minnesota seat belt statute’s gag rule allowing claims for “an action…for defectively designed, manufactured, installed or operating seat belt restraint systems.” Progressive Insurance made the argument that the plain meaning language of the seat belt gag rule statute made clear that the exception was intended to apply to manufacturers of car seats or seat belts, and not to those who may have negligently buckled or maintained a seat belt.
The majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed, construing the word “an action” to mean, as defined by another statute, “any proceeding in any court in the state.” The court further noted that while the word “defective” is associated with products liability actions, the word defect has many different meanings.
Another other than a lawyer reading the case would find bizarre the court’s description of Progressive’s contentions as arguments the “Harrisons” were making. As a personal injury lawyer who reads cases regularly, even I found odd the text that, on its face, leads the reader to believe the parents were making arguments against their quadriplegic child. (I guess if I’m made up of 10 lbs of lawyer, I’m about 180 lbs of parent.)
This case has little practical meaning to this boy and his family. Progressive is required to fork over another $100,000.00 – chump change in the treatment this boy needs. Progressive has every right to make its arguments, and, in this case, I think their argument had some merit, even if the Minnesota Supreme Court didn’t agree. Still, I can’t imagine that if they had prevailed, they would have gone home skipping, thinking they had made the world a better place. This is why I hated defense work and why I enjoy being a personal injury lawyer. Being a personal injury lawyer is not exactly the same as working in the Peace Corp, I fully realize this, but it is a joy to try to help people receive compensation for their suffering.