IN COURT OF APPEALS
John Patrick Burck, et al.,
Benjamin Paul Pederson, et al.,
Edna Pernella Peterson,
Filed October 11, 2005
Gordon W. Shumaker, Judge
Anoka County District Court
File No. C8-02-10179
Michael A. Zimmer, Kafi C. Linville, Tewksbury, Kerfeld, Zimmer, 88 South Tenth Street, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55403 (for appellants)
Douglas D. McGhee, Arthur Chapman, Kettering, Smetak & Pikala, P.A., 500 Young Quinlan Building, 81 South Ninth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402-3214 (for respondents Pederson)
Bratvold, Jan M. Gunderson, Rider Bennett, LLP,
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge; Shumaker, Judge; and Forsberg, Judge.*
S Y L L A B U S
2. The language of Minn. Stat. § 169.685, subd. 4(a), is clear and applies equally to both plaintiffs and defendants.
O P I N I O N
GORDON W. SHUMAKER, Judge
Appellant John Patrick Burck alleges that he was injured through contact with his own seatbelt in a motor-vehicle accident involving cars driven by respondents Benjamin Pederson and Edna Peterson. The district court granted respondents’ motion in limine to preclude the introduction of evidence relating to appellant’s use of his seatbelt under Minn. Stat. § 169.685, subd.4(a) (2004), the “seatbelt gag rule.” Because the court’s ruling was legally dispositive of the case, the court ordered summary judgment in favor of respondents. Contending that the district court’s interpretation of Minn. Stat. § 169.685, subd. 4(a), was in error and produced an absurd result, appellants challenge the summary judgment on appeal. We affirm.
Appellant John Patrick Burck and respondents Benjamin Pederson and Edna Peterson were driving separate cars. Peterson was in the lane adjacent to Burck, and Pederson was directly behind Burck. Peterson moved her car into Burck’s lane in such a manner as to cause Burck to apply his brakes hard to avoid colliding with her. Pederson struck Burck from behind.
Burck was wearing a seatbelt. The impact of the collision caused his seat to break and collapse backward. He sustained various injuries that were treated after the accident.
About five months later, Burck began to experience abdominal pain. Ultimately, his surgeon diagnosed the problem as an abdominal hematoma, which the surgeon removed. The surgeon’s opinion was that the hematoma was caused by contact with the seatbelt in the accident with the respondents. Burck sued the respondents.
The respondents moved in limine to preclude evidence of Burck’s use of his seatbelt in the accident. Burck acknowledged that, without the surgeon’s opinion as to the cause of the hematoma, he would have no evidence that the accident caused his abdominal injury and that, “in essence, the issue was dispositive.”
The district court granted the respondents’ motion, treated the matter as a summary-judgment proceeding, and ordered entry of summary judgment dismissing the case. The appellants challenge that dismissal on appeal.
Appellant motor-vehicle driver was wearing his seatbelt during a multiple vehicle collision. His physician would testify that contact with the seatbelt in the collision caused injury to appellant’s abdomen. Minn. Stat. § 169.685, subd. 4(a) (2004), prohibits the introduction into evidence of the fact of the use or nonuse of a seatbelt in a motor-vehicle accident.
Did the district court err by ruling that appellant is prohibited from presenting at trial his physician’s opinion as to the cause of his abdominal injury?
Minn. Stat. § 169.685, subd. 4(a) (2004), provides that “proof of the use or failure to use seat belts . . . shall not be admissible in evidence in any litigation involving personal injuries or property damage resulting from the use or operation of any motor vehicle.”
In this personal-injury action arising from a motor-vehicle accident in which appellant John Patrick Burck alleges that he was injured through forceful contact with his seatbelt, the district court applied Minn. Stat. § 169.685, subd. 4(a), the so-called “seatbelt gag rule,” so as to preclude Burck from introducing at trial evidence that his seatbelt caused one of his injuries.
the parties’ agreement, the district court treated this matter as a summary-judgment
motion. On appeal from summary judgment,
the interpretation of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Marsden
v. Crawford, 589 N.W.2d 804, 806 (
The appellants contend that the district court’s application of the statute violated the legislature’s intent and produced an unreasonable, absurd result. They argue that the seatbelt gag rule was created (1) to avoid the harsh result of contributory negligence as an absolute bar to recovery; (2) to shield automobile manufacturers from lawsuits; (3) to protect plaintiffs from comparative-negligence claims based on their failure to use seatbelts; and (4) to remove the issue of a plaintiff’s failure to use a seatbelt from the jury.
appellants cite Olson v. Ford Motor Co.,
558 N.W.2d 491 (
to the “absurdity” argument, the supreme court noted that “it simply is not
clear that the legislature intended to benefit motorists alone in enacting the
seat belt gag rule . . . ” and reiterated that the express,
plain language of the statute bars seatbelt evidence.
appellants cite Lind v. Slowinski, 450
N.W.2d 353 (
Appellants cite only two authorities in support of their argument that the district court misinterpreted and misapplied the seatbelt gag rule. Neither case persuades us that the legislative intent of the statute is to do anything other than what the plain language states, namely, to prohibit evidence of seatbelt use or nonuse in motor-vehicle-accident litigation.
Although it might be argued that the law unfairly prevents a person allegedly injured by a seatbelt from proving the cause of the injury, the result is not absurd if the legislature purposely created the restriction on that proof. It is indisputable that the legislature has the power to create and to limit rights. Limitations can sometimes be criticized as being unfair. The appellants have plausibly shown that the seatbelt gag rule can be unfair when applied in certain circumstances. But they have failed to show that the restriction was not within the purpose of the law.
conclusion that the legislature intended precisely what the plain language of
the statute provides is fortified by the fact that the legislature amended the
statute in 1999 to include a products-liability exception but did not in any
way alter the prohibition on proof of the use or nonuse of a seatbelt in ordinary
motor-vehicle personal-injury litigation.
addition to Lind and
D E C I S I O N
Because the appellants’ evidence of the use of a seatbelt as causing injury falls squarely within the plain meaning of Minn. Stat. § 169.685, subd. 4(a) (2004), the district court did not err in applying the statute so as to preclude the introduction of such evidence at trial. Nor did the court err in treating the evidentiary issue as dispositive and granting summary judgment dismissing the action.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.