You are here

Teenager who failed to wear seatbelt was not negligent

3 March 2010

A 16-year-old boy who sat in the front seat of a friend’s car without a safety belt but with a female friend “on his knee or lap” should not lose a percentage of his damages for contributory negligence, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

William Stanton suffered serious brain damage when the driver, who was also not wearing a belt, lost control of his car driving a group of young people back from a bar in South Yorkshire.

The court heard that Matthew Collinson was driving too fast on a single lane road, at a minimum of twice the 30 mph speed limit, when he hit an oncoming vehicle. He was killed immediately and the car ended up on its roof.

Giving judgment in Stanton v Collinson [2010] EWCA Civ 81, Lord Justice Hughes said the High Court had declined to reduce the damages awarded to Stanton on the grounds that it had not been shown that wearing a belt would have sufficiently reduced his injuries.

Hughes LJ said Collinson was just within the legal alcohol limit at the time of the crash and there was no evidence that Stanton had drunk too much.

“Who was sitting on whom in the front was hotly in issue at the trial, but the judge’s finding, which is not now challenged, was that the claimant had the girl on his lap or knee,” Hughes LJ said.

“Neither had the seatbelt on. Nor did the driver or the other passengers wear the belts available.”

Lord Justice Hughes went on: “It seems to me that the decision whether the evidence nevertheless showed, on the balance of probabilities, that a seatbelt would sufficiently have reduced the injuries to require a reduction for contributory negligence was a fine one.

“Some judges might, as it seems to me, have been persuaded that this was more likely than not, given the apparent agreement to that effect of both experts, with relevant experience, and given the element of restraint which at least the lap part of a seatbelt would have provided.

“But others would not, and much depends on the judge’s on the spot assessment of the evidence overall. The judge trying the case has the incomparable advantage of seeing the evidence as a whole, the context in which it emerges, and the quality of those who give it.”

Hughes LJ said he agreed with the trial judge that the brain “is, as she observed, a vulnerable, and I would add an extremely complex, organ”.

He added: “A large part of the difficulty in the present case arose from the combination of the proposition in the joint report that serious head injury was likely even with a seatbelt, with the less than satisfactory evidence about what that meant.

“In other cases, if that difficulty did not arise, it may well be that skilled seatbelt engineers, if they agree about what kind of injury would have been occasioned if the belt had been worn, provide evidence which is sufficient for the judge to resolve the issue.

“However, any doubt about the appropriateness of medical evidence ought to be capable of avoidance in the great majority of cases if the case management process is operated in such a way as to ensure that it is clear to the parties well in advance of trial whether the causation aspect of contributory negligence is, or is not, in issue.”

He said the proposition laid down by Lord Denning in Froom v Butcher [1976] 1 QB 286 that, in the absence of something exceptional, there should be no reduction in damages in cases where the injury would not have been reduced ‘to a considerable extent’ by the seatbelt, was still the correct approach.

“Both parties in this appeal urged upon us, in different contexts, the undesirability of a prolonged or intensive enquiry in these cases,” Hughes LJ said.

“They were right to do so; there is a powerful public interest in there being no such enquiry into fine degrees of contributory negligence, so that the vast majority of cases can be settled according to a well-understood formula and those few which entail trial do not mushroom out of control. Froom v Butcher so states, and is binding.”

Lord Justice Ward and Lady Justice Hallett agreed.

Simon Dyer, a personal injury specialist from Cloisters, said: “The defendant challenged whether guidelines which have withstood repeated scrutiny by the courts over the past three decades were still appropriate some 30 years later, developed as they were, at a time when society had very different attitudes towards seatbelt usage, and they were not yet compulsory.

“A number of decisions suggested that the courts might move towards raising the percentage reductions where contributory negligence has been proved. This decision however, reaffirms the guidelines set out down by Lord Denning which have done so much to provide certainty and in so doing assisted parties to settle claims where possible.”

Categorised in:

Financial services & Tax Procedures Costs Road traffic