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Seat Belt Law Challenged
By Elizabeth Stawicki
March 23, 1999
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Minnesota is one of the few states in the nation with a seat belt gag rule. That rule bans information about whether a person was wearing a seat belt as evidence of fault in personal-injury lawsuits or in lawsuits against automakers.

Some opponents say the law is outdated and now penalizes as many people as it was designed to protect.

WHEN MINNESOTA LEGISLATORS PASSED THE SEAT BELT GAG RULE in 1963, wearing a seat belt was optional, and considerable debate raged over whether seat belts could prevent injuries. So it was in this context that legislators ensured that a driver who caused a crash could not blame the "innocent" driver for failing to wear a seat belt.

It would be at least another year before car makers would begin touting seat belts as a safety feature as in this 1965 ad for Ford featuring a talking seat belt.

Today, motorists are legally required to wear seat belts in 48 states including Minnesota. Authorities generally agree seat belts and child-safety seats save lives as well as prevent injuries. With that in mind, some - like Amy Marsden - want the Minnesota gag rule repealed.

Marsden: It's frustrating for me and should be frustrating as a community that the Minnesota seat belt gag law, that it protects people that don't wear seat belts. But it's hurting our case.
Marsden's three-year-old daughter, Riley, suffered severe brain damage following a crash in 1996 that left her semi-comatose, unable to talk, walk and eat. Riley's daycare provider was at the wheel at the time of the crash. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the seat belt gag rule barred Marsden from showing in court that the daycare provider failed to put Riley in a safety seat as she was legally required to do:
Marsden: I thought that as a parent I covered myself by signing this contract that she made available to me. She's the one that brought it forth that she would have my children in car seats and seat belts. And now, there is no recourse.
Cain: In general we think gag rules are a lousy idea.
Jim Cain of Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. Cain says Ford supports repealing Minnesota's gag rule even though that could mean the company could face seat belt lawsuits down the road.
Cain: The one thing that works in our favor is that defects are extremely rare, particularly in safety systems like seat belts. That's not to say there's never been a seat belt failure but the greater good for everybody comes in supporting a public policy that encourages seat belt use.
One group that disagrees with a total repeal of the law is the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association. The group's president, Bill Harper, says while it's a good idea to allow evidence against manufacturers for a faulty restraint design, it's a bad idea to repeal the gag rule in personal injury cases:
Harper: You take that away and what you're doing is creating a windfall for the insurance industry to come in and argue "well, if the seat belt had been used and then these damages would've been minimized." And then you get into engineering principles. You get the jury in the position where they're guessing about who truly was at fault.
A bill moving through the Legislature mirrors the trial lawyer's view. It calls for a partial repeal of the gag rule. Its author, Representative Mary Jo McGuire of Falcon Heights, says she'd like to repeal the gag rule entirely, but says the full Legislature won't support it.
McGuire: I personally have carried the bill to repeal the entire gag rule and could not get a hearing and could not get enough agreement to get it passed. So then I said, at least where we have found these items to be defective, we should be able to bring cases in those instances. So you take what you can get.
Amy Marsden says she has a hard time understanding who legislators are protecting.
Marsden: I think as lawyers and congresspeople, people who are dealing with passing this bill, they have no children like Riley. And I will make her voice heard and the law will change. I think everybody can go around dealing with paperwork and laws and theories, but there's also a person behind all this. I'm sitting here looking at her and there's a person.
Marsden says she's writing a personal letter to Governor Jesse Ventura in hopes he can support a full change in the seat belt gag rule. Two years ago, Governor Arne Carlson vetoed a bill virtually identical to this year's legislation saying he could not support a bill that did not repeal the gag rule entirely.

Elizabeth Stawicki covers legal issues for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at