The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas A. Varlan United States District Judge
This civil action was before the Court on September 24, 2006, for a final pretrial conference. The Court heard the arguments of counsel on several pending pretrial motions and issued oral rulings on those opinions on September 27, 2006. Plaintiff's Refiled and Amended First Motion in Limine [Doc. 82] requests an order barring any reference to plaintiff not having her seat belt buckled at the time of the accident. Because of the unique question of law raised by plaintiff's motion, the Court further explains its ruling as follows:
As an initial matter, the Court must determine whether state or federal law applies. In a diversity case, "state law governs substantive issues and federal law governs procedural issues." Legg v. Chopra, 286 F.3d 286, 289 (6th Cir. 2002) (citing Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938)). The twin aims of Erie are to discourage forum-shopping and avoid inequitable administration of the law. Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 468 (1965).
Plaintiff argues that this is a matter of substantive law and therefore the law of Tennessee shall apply. The Sixth Circuit, facing a similar issue regarding the Ohio seat belt statute, applied Ohio law to determine the admissibility of seat belt use in a products liability case. Sours v. General Motors Corp.,717 F.2d 1511, 1519 (6th Cir. 1982). While the Sours court did not go into detail on the choice of law issue, the District Court for the District of Maine thoroughly considered the issue regarding a similar Maine statute and concluded that because the state statute was enacted for substantive policy reasons, it should be considered substantive rather than procedural. Morton v. Brockman, 184 F.R.D. 211, 214 (D. Me. 1999) (quoting 19 Wright, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4512, at 422 (2d ed. 1996) ("[T]here are a number of 'state law rules that, because their application result in the exclusion of evidence, sometimes are considered rules of evidence, but in fact serve substantive state policies and are characterized more properly as rules of substantive law within the meaning of the Erie doctrine.'"). This Court agrees with the Morton court's analysis and concludes that the admissibility of evidence of seat belt use in this case is a substantive issue and therefore Tennessee law applies.
II. Construction of the Tennessee Statute
The Court's application of the Tennessee Statute must be guided by accepted rules of statutory construction. Under Tennessee rules of statutory construction, the Court must give each word "its plain meaning in its normal and accepted use, without a forced interpretation that would limit or expand the statute's application" when the statutory language is clear and unambiguous. Lanier v. Rains, 229 S.W.3d 656, 661 (Tenn. 2007) (citing Eastman Chem.
Co. v. Johnson, 151 S.W.3d 503, 507 (Tenn.2004)). "If the language is ambiguous, a court then must look to the statutory scheme as a whole and to legislative history to determine its meaning." Fusner v. Coop Const. Co., LLC, 211 S.W.3d 686, 691-92 (Tenn. 2007) (citing Parks v. Tenn. Mun. League Risk Mgnt. Pool, 974 S.W.2d 677, 679 (Tenn. 1998)). Additionally, the construing court should presume that every word in a statute has meaning and purpose. Lanier, 229 S.W.3d at 661 (citing In re C.K.G., 173 S.W.3d 714, 722 (Tenn.2005)).
Tennessee Code Annotated § 55-9-603, known as the Tennessee Mandatory Safety Belt Act, mandates seat belt use when a person is operating a vehicle moving in a forward direction on the highway. Highway is defined as "every way when any part thereto is open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel." Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-101(22). Tennessee Code § 55-9-604 addresses the admissibility of evidence of lack of seat belt use:
(a) The failure to wear a safety belt or receipt of a citation or warrant for arrest for failure to wear a safety belt shall not be admissible into evidence in a civil action; provided, that evidence of a failure to wear a safety belt or receipt of a citation or warrant for arrest for failure to wear a safety belt, as required by this chapter, may be admitted in a civil action as to the causal relationship between non-compliance and the injuries alleged, if the following conditions have been satisfied:
(1) The plaintiff has filed a products liability claim;
(2) The defendant alleging non-compliance with this chapter shall raise this defense in its answer or timely amendment therefore in accordance ...