Failure to wear seatbelt, not contributory negligence
From the Solicitors Journal 03/03/10:
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  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 seat belt 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 seat belt 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 seat belt would have provided.
As Hughes LJ highlighted, the decision whether or not to find that not wearing a seatbelt had amounted to contributory negligence was a fine one – particularly as Stanton remains seriously brain damaged and in need of considerable care since the accident. The real question, perhaps, is whether the judge should have found against the claimant on the grounds of policy. In other words, should he have found that failure to wear a seatbelt did in fact amount to contributory negligence on the basis that such a decision would send out a strong and more meaningful message to the public at large about the undeniable importance of seatbelts.