Larry's Legal Lessons: Lack of Seat Belts can be Costly

If you are injured in a motor vehicle crash, through no fault of your own, a 2005 law will adversely impact your jury verdict if you were not wearing a seat belt.

Caution - Perjury: If the VSSR claim is not settled for a lump sum with the widow (see Form IC 10), and the fire chief and officers are called to testify before a hearing officer of the Industrial Commission of Ohio, their testimony can lead the hearing officer to conclude that the department violated the seat belt safety requirement. Individually, the results can be far more drastic. Their false statements can be referred to a county prosecutor, who can ask a grand jury to indict them for perjury. If convicted, they face jail time, substantial fines, and termination from the fire department!

VSSR Penalty: $630,000 - William Garver, Manager of the Ohio VSSR Investigations Unit kindly provided the following:

Hypothetically, if a 40-year-old firefighter were to die today after being ejected from the truck, his widow could potentially be entitled to a substantial VSSR award if the IC-9 application cited 4123:1-21-04(5)(b) seat belt required. In this scenario, Ohio's current Average Weekly Wage (AWW) is set at $751.00 per week. Let's say the widow is 40 years of age as well. Her life expectancy is say, 75 years. If successful in the VSSR, she would be entitled to 35 years of VSSR comp. at a maximum of 50 percent additional award allowance rate (50 percent of the AWW at the time of death). Historically, fatal VSSR awards are granted at the maximum or 50 percent. So, 50 percent of $751.00 is $375.50 per week, times 35 years = $630,840.00. As long as the widow does not remarry, she would continue to receive the VSSR award.

VSSR Additional Penalty: $315,000 penalty, plus $50,000: The Industrial Commission of Ohio will issue an "Order of Correction" to the fire department.

Ohio VSSR investigators will return to the fire department to see if they are now following the seat belt safety requirement. A second VSSR violation can result in an additional penalty of 50 percent of the first VSSR, and if this second VSSR violation occurred within two years of the first, the fire department can be hit with an additional $50,000 fine.

Normal Workers' Comp Award: $672,000 - The VSSR claim is for an additional award under Ohio Workers Comp. What about the widow's regular worker's compensation claim?

Bill Garver kindly did the math:

Using the same scenario, and the widow never remarries, she would be entitled to death benefits for the remainder of her life (75 year expectancy). Death benefits are payable at 66.66 percent of the decedent's AWW (not the state determined/set AWW, utilized in tabulating VSSRs), but not less than 50 percent of the state set AWW. For this scenario, let's say the decedent earned $600.00 per week. 66.66 percent of that amount is approximately $400.00. $400.00 per week x 35 years = $672,000.00. Also, keep in mind that the widow will also be entitled to funeral expenses up to $5,500.00.

Other Financial Matters - Ohio and Federal LODD Benefits
Under the hypothetical, the widow of the full-time firefighter will also be entitled to death benefits under the Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund or Ohio Public Employee Retirement System, as well as federal line-of-duty-death benefits, under Public Safety Officers' Benefits program, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Ohio Civil Lawsuits - Damages Reduced By Failure To Wear Seat Belt: If you are injured in a motor vehicle crash, through no fault of your own, an Ohio law enacted in 2005 will adversely impact your jury verdict if you were not wearing a seat belt. Likewise, if an Ohio firefighter is injured riding in an emergency vehicle on an emergency run because a civilian driver pulled out in front of the apparatus, the injured firefighter's recovery in a private lawsuit against the civilian driver will be affected.

The Ohio General Assembly in 2005 passed a law to "encourage" all motorists to wear seat belts. The jury will be instructed to reduce the award to the injured driver or passenger to the extent his injuries were caused or enhanced by his failure to wear a seat belt. The Ohio Tort Reform Act, Amended Senate Bill 80, effective April 6, 2005, requires judges to instruct juries that they may determine "that the failure [to wear seat belt] contributed to the harm alleged in the tort action and may diminish a recovery of compensatory damages that represent the noneconomic loss."