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Kaestner v. Snohomish County

September 3, 1996


Coleman, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman

COLEMAN, J. -- This case involves Michael Kaestner's claim against the Snohomish County, in which he alleges that deputies of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office were negligent in failing to fasten his seat belt after he was arrested and placed in an official vehicle. RCW 46.61.688 requires occupants of motor vehicles to wear seat belts but also provides that failure to wear a seat belt does not constitute negligence. We hold that RCW 46.61.688 does not impose an actionable duty in this case, and we affirm.

On January 30, 1993, Snohomish County Sheriff's deputies arrested Kaestner at the home of his ex-wife for fourth degree assault and violation of a no-contact order. According to the deputies' deposition testimony, Kaestner resisted being handcuffed by pulling his arms away from them, and they handcuffed him with his arms behind his back. Kaestner protested his arrest loudly as Deputy Kuper took him outside and placed him in the back seat of the Sheriff's Office vehicle, a 2-door GMC Yukon. Kaestner told Deputy Kuper that he had taken sleeping pills and wanted to lie down and sleep. Deputy Kuper let him lie down and did not fasten his seat belt. When Deputy Dringman returned to the vehicle, he saw Kaestner lying in the back seat and did not fasten his seat belt. Earlier, Kaestner had told Deputy Dringman that he had been drinking and taking sleeping pills. Both deputies believed that they would have had to compromise their safety to climb into the back seat of the 2-door vehicle to fasten Kaestner's seat belt. On the way to the jail, the deputies stopped at a red light. The Yukon was rear-ended by Deborah Huddleston, whose blood alcohol level exceeded the legal limit. The impact thrust Kaestner into the cage separating the front and rear areas of the vehicle, injuring him.

Kaestner brought an action for personal injuries against Huddleston and Snohomish County, alleging that he had "not [been] restrained by a seat belt, contrary to RCW 46.61.688," and that he was injured "as a direct and proximate result of the negligence of Deborah Huddleston and Snohomish County Sheriffs Department." An order of default was entered against Huddleston, who is not a party to this appeal. Kaestner and the County each moved for summary judgment, neither disputing the material facts. Kaestner framed the issue as whether Snohomish County was negligent as a matter of law for violating RCW 46.61.688 and Snohomish County Policy 5.14.1. The County contended that failure to seatbelt cannot constitute negligence under RCW 46.61.688(6) and, alternatively, that WAC 204-41-030 exempted the deputies from any duty to seatbelt. The trial court denied Kaestner's motion and granted summary judgment in favor of the County, ruling that (1) failure to comply with RCW 46.61.688 may not be used as evidence of negligence, (2) WAC 204-41-030 allows officers to use their discretion in determining when to seatbelt detainees, and (3) Snohomish County Policy does not countermand state statute.

As an initial matter, the County argues that this appeal should be dismissed because Kaestner's complaint did not identify Snohomish County Policy 5.14.1 but his subsequent arguments focused on that policy. The County further contends that Kaestner failed to contest each of the trial court's reasons for its ruling, and, therefore, the allegedly unchallenged reason, the statute's limitation on the use of failure-to-seatbelt evidence, remains in support of the summary judgment. We do not consider either argument a bar to reaching the merits of Kaestner's claim. The complaint adequately identified Kaestner's theories of liability, and the issues raised on appeal necessarily require evaluation of the statute.

We turn now to the merits. When reviewing an order of summary judgment, the appellate court engages in the same inquiry as the trial court. Marincovich v. Tarabochia, 114 Wash. 2d 271, 274, 787 P.2d 562 (1990). When, as here, the parties do not dispute the material facts, summary judgment is proper if the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. CR 56(c); Marincovich, 114 Wash. 2d at 274. This appeal presents a single issue of law--whether Kaestner may maintain a negligence action against the County based on the deputies' decision to leave his seat belt unfastened.

Negligence rests on the premise that liability attaches whenever an actor deviates from a legally imposed duty. Amend v. Bell, 89 Wash. 2d 124, 132, 570 P.2d 138, 95 A.L.R.3d 225 (1977) (citing William Prosser, Handbook of the Law of Torts, sec. 30 (4th ed. 1971)). RCW 46.61.688(3) speaks to the duty of people driving or riding in motor vehicles to fasten their seat belts.

Every person sixteen years of age or older operating or riding in a motor vehicle shall wear the safety belt assembly in a properly adjusted and securely fastened manner. RCW 46.61.688. This duty to belt oneself is also reflected in Snohomish County Policy:

Driver and passengers of Snohomish County vehicles shall wear seat belts at all times when the vehicle is being operated. Snohomish County Policy 5.14.1.

RCW 46.61.688(3) and County Policy 5.14.1 impose co-extensive duties in the present circumstances. *fn1 Although the statute's reach is broader, covering all motor vehicles while the County Policy governs only county vehicles, both provisions require all persons operating or riding in Snohomish County vehicles to wear their seat belts. The operative language of the County Policy simply mirrors that of the statute. Any duties owed under the County Policy are the same as those imposed by RCW 46.61.688. Because the County Policy is redundant on the current facts, we need only determine whether the deputies had a duty to fasten Kaestner's seat belt under the statute. Contrary to the County's argument, it is not necessary for us to determine whether a county policy, as opposed to a statute, ordinance, or administrative rule, may establish a standard of care upon which to base a negligence action.

We conclude that the seat belt statute did not require the deputies to fasten Kaestner's seat belt. We note that the statute does not squarely address the current facts. Each adult passenger and driver is required to wear his or her seat belt while in a moving vehicle. The focus of the statute is on the duty to "wear" a seat belt, that is, to fasten one's own seat belt. The statute does not address whether a driver must ensure that adult passengers fasten their seat belts. The statute only obliges a driver to ensure that passengers are seatbelted when those passengers are under the age of 16. RCW 46.61.688(4). By not including a similar provision making drivers responsible for adult passengers, the statute places responsibility for seatbelting on the individual. Thus, an adult passenger who refuses to wear a seat belt would be in violation of the statute, but the driver would not be responsible for that passenger's failure to do so.

Having concluded that the seat belt statute does not require drivers to ensure that voluntary adult passengers fasten their seat belts, we find the current situation analogous. Although Kaestner was in custody, there is no evidence that he wished to have his seat belt fastened or would have buckled it if his hands had been free. He did not ask the deputies to fasten his seat belt for him or request that his hands be freed so he could do it himself. Instead, he asked to lie down on the back seat. By lying down, Kaestner, an adult, was effectively indicating that he did not want to wear his seat belt.

But even if the statute did create a duty in the present case, Kaestner's claim must still fail because the statute specifically prohibits negligence claims based on the failure to comply.

(6) Failure to comply with the requirements of this section does not constitute negligence, nor may failure to wear a safety belt assembly be admissible as evidence of negligence in any civil action. RCW 46.61.688(6). Although the Legislature chose to encourage safety belt use by enacting the mandatory safety belt statute, it also chose to limit the ramifications of failure to comply. This limitation codified prior case law that refused to admit evidence of a party's failure to seatbelt to prove negligence claims. See, Amend v. Bell, (supra) (holding failure to fasten belt does not constitute comparative negligence); Derheim v. N. Fiorito Co., 80 Wash. 2d 161, 492 P.2d 1030 (1972) (holding failure to wear seat belt is not admissible to show contributory negligence); Clark v. Payne, 61 Wash. App. 189, ...

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