A court ruling on Monday could have serious ramifications for drivers who fail to make sure passengers in their car under the age of 18 are wearing a seat belt.
Earlier this week, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division upheld a lower court ruling that the state's seat belt law can be used to prosecute drivers if a minor passenger in their vehicle is not wearing a seat belt at the time of a crash.
The ruling was the result of an appeal filed by Kirby Lenihan, 23, of Hamburg, who was the driver in a 2007 crash that killed her 16-year-old passenger. Both Lenihan and her passenger were not wearing seat belts at the time of the crash.
On Aug. 10, 2007, Lenihan was headed south on Route 519 in Hampton Township with her 16-year-old friend in the front passenger seat. Police said Lenihan lost control of the vehicle and crossed the shoulder of the roadway before striking a guardrail head-on. Both Lenihan and her passenger sustained serious injuries and were transported to a local hospital. The 16-year-old died the next day.
During the investigation, police found a can of aerosol dust remover and a can of carpet deodorizer on the driver's side floor of the vehicle. The can of carpet deodorizer was missing the lid and nozzle, which led authorities to suspect that the occupants of the car may have been inhaling the propellants in the cans to get high.
A subsequent blood test revealed a concentration of a chemical compound found in the dust remover in Lenihan's system. In 2011, Lenihan accepted a plea deal reducing her conviction from second-degree vehicular homicide to recklessly causing bodily injury to a passenger.
The charge of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence was dismissed. Lenihan was sentenced to 180 days in jail and three years probation, with the jail sentence suspended pending her appeal.
The defense argued that the state's seat belt legislation did not envision a violation of that law as the basis for prosecution.
On Monday, the Appellate Division ruled that a driver who fails to make sure that a minor passenger is properly using a seat belt can be held criminally negligent for failing to perform a duty imposed by a law intended to protect public safety. The crime is graded between a fourth and second degree violation, depending on the extent of the injuries sustained by the victim.
New Jersey's seatbelt regulations (NJSA 39:3-76.2) makes the driver responsible for making sure all minor passengers are properly using a vehicle's seat belts.
The Appellate Division found that the state’s seat belt law is broadly intended to protect both individual drivers in motor vehicles and public safety in general. As a result of the ruling, drivers who fail to properly restrain infants, children and teenagers who later suffer significant bodily injury as a result of an accident, can be prosecuted under the law.