Court of Appeal rules no seatbelt is not contributory negligence

by scotslawstudent

Law Actually has covered the decision of the Court of Appeal that a teenager left with brain damage after a crash was not contributorily negligent in his injuries.

This is a case which it seems immediately apparent is a bit strange – the victim was in a car being driven (by someone else) at more than twice the speed limit, while not wearing a seatbelt and even carrying a passenger on his knee down a country road. It seems pretty inevitable that something would go wrong with that setup, yet it wasn’t the victim’s fault that he got hurt (arguably, in a but for sense).

There are times when the victim, though injured by someone else, is not totally blameless in his actions. This creates situations where people who are quite obviously at fault can win delicts against other people, which can seem a little unjust. One way of dealing with this is to subtract a portion of the damages payout to account for their contribution to the injury.

Contribution is one of the most important parts of many cases – I recently participated in an excellent mock employment tribunal training session very generously run by a commercial firm in the city where the employer’s poor dismissal procedure was saved by a 100% contribution because of the employee’s actions. It’s a hollow victory if you beat someone in court but don’t get any money.

However if you act negligently but don’t, provably, contribute to your injury (like here) you can escape the contribution. Your contribution to your injury is a question of fact and it seems that expert evidence couldn’t make the link.

However Michael, and I have to agree with him here, points out that there are massive policy implications in this case. I suspect that the whole case came down to just about two policy decisions – do you support a seriously injured person who needs to finance long term care (hence the court action) or do you make a statement about seatbelt safety. Showing that hard cases make bad law it seems difficult to take a paternalistic stance when the claimant is quite as vulnerable as he is in this case. I don’t think that’s a suitable reason to decide either way and I don’t think that’s what the court used – since the necessary causal link was unproven – but it makes it emotive nonetheless.

Safety devices in vehicles is quite a difficult area – there are some occasions where, for example wearing a bike helmet actually makes some injuries worse and generally failing to land on your head negates the benefit in wearing a helmet at all. The Libertarians don’t believe that it’s even justifiable that the state should make a policy of using safety devices at all since it’s personal choice. I think that there are a lot of reasons that someone would or wouldn’t wear a seatbelt and I question how much this case, an appellate court upholding that a teenager with severe brain damage should get the full damages, will really influence teenagers to drive dangerously or for people to not wear a seatbelt.