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Bill Would Allow Defense Attorneys to Tell Court if Accident Victims Used Seat Belts

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A state House subcommittee will discuss two bills on Wednesday that would allow defense attorneys to point out at trial that plaintiffs in auto wreck cases were not wearing seat belts. House Bill 504 and House Bill 532 essentially are identical in intent with slight differences in wording.

Both contain changes to OCGA §40-8-76.1 that, with caveats, would allow seat belt usage to be introduced as mitigating evidence in the damages phase of car wreck suits. The bills' provisions only apply to front-seat occupants who are at least 14 at the time of their injuries. The bills also would require defendants to introduce the seat belt evidence before entering a pretrial order. Both are sponsored by lawyer-lawmakers and are scheduled for a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 18 at 10 a.m.

Subcommittee Chairman Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, is the main sponsor of HB 532, which he filed on March 4. Rep. B.J. Pak, R-Lilburn, is the principal sponsor of HB 504, which he filed on Feb. 27.

The only major difference in the bills is that Pak's does not require defendants to offer expert testimony that failure to wear seat belts contributed to the plaintiff's injuries. Pak said in a statement that the impetus behind the measures "was to repeal a law that unfairly excludes relevant evidence of contributory negligence."

Jacobs said the hearing will be a "temperature-taking session" where he expects to hear from representatives of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the insurance industry, who are likely to support the effort, as well as from the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, which is likely to oppose it. "The chamber and GTLA have been talking in the interim between sessions," Jacobs said. Two similar bills failed in 2009 despite a compromise struck among GTLA, the chamber and insurers.

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