There are many elements of the UK legal system which might leave you scratching your head, trying to make sense of a ruling. For example, the mystery of contributory negligence has been discussed at great length by personal injury claims experts. Aside from the many factors to take into consideration, what is the definition of contributory negligence?
Contributory negligence is a legal term used as a defence in a personal injury claim, suggesting that the injured party was partly to blame
The best way to demonstrate how contributory negligence works in the courtroom is to show several examples.
Road traffic accidents
As injuries received in a road traffic accident are by far and away the most common reason for personal injury claims, we will focus on two scenarios.
The wearing of seat belts
A court ruling in 1976, Froom v Butcher, has been used to demonstrate contributory negligence when it comes to the wearing of seat belts. While the claim for compensation by the passenger was upheld, despite the fact they were not wearing a seatbelt, there were several interesting comments from the judge:-
- Not wearing a seatbelt did not contribute to the accident but may have been causative in the injuries received
- The decision whether or not to wear a seatbelt is made by each individual and is not the responsibility of the driver
- If driver negligence led to an accident and injuries, even if the claimant was not wearing a seatbelt, the driver should still bear the most significant share of responsibility
- Evidence proving that the wearing of a seatbelt would have prevented all injuries should lead to a deduction of 25% in compensation
- Evidence demonstrating that the wearing of a seatbelt would have reduced injuries received should lead to a deduction of 15% in compensation
These comments open the door to pursuing claims of contributory negligence and a possible reduction in compensation payments. Interestingly, the judge also confirmed that it was the role of the defendant to prove contributory negligence. This was not an automatic assumption and not decided by the authorities without hearing evidence.
Getting into a vehicle with a drunk driver
In recent times we have seen a severe clampdown on drink-driving and a reduction in the legal drink-drive limit. While the advice is simple, don’t drink if you are driving, a minimum amount of alcohol is still allowed under the law. This begs the question, if you decided to get into a vehicle with a drunk driver, is this contributory negligence in the event of an accident and personal injury compensation claim?
This issue was covered at great length in a 1977 court case, Owens v Brimmell. A passenger had been injured in an accident with the driver found to be at fault. The driver was also over the legal alcohol limit. The passenger successfully pursued compensation, but the judge made several comments which are still relevant today:-
- A passenger who willingly decides to travel in a vehicle where the driver is impaired by alcohol is at least partially responsible for any injuries received
- The driver must still bear the most significant responsibility for the accident and subsequent injuries
- The claimant’s injury compensation was reduced by 20%
The 20% reduction in compensation is a ballpark figure, and we have seen slightly higher and slightly lower deductions in other cases. While there is some discrepancy regarding incidents where individuals are coerced or forced to travel with a drunk driver, under normal circumstances, the decision is a form of contributory negligence.
Assessment of defendant’s ability to drive
There is a grey area regarding assessing a defendant’s ability to drive, contributory negligence and the claimant. Passengers are not obliged to ask the driver whether they are “fit to drive” but are expected to make an assessment. We have seen cases where claimants suggested that the driver’s ability did not appear impaired, and as a consequence, there was no case for contributory negligence. This assessment is based on a “reasonable person” not under the influence of alcohol or any other substances.
On occasion, claims have been pursued where the claimant chose not to wear a seatbelt when getting into a vehicle with a drunk driver. This prompts the question, if contributory negligence was proven on both counts, should compensation be deducted by 45%?
The official ruling is that a deduction of 45% would result in, at face value, similar levels of negligence for the claimant and the defendant. However, one of the main threads through the idea of contributory negligence is the fact, in the case of road traffic accidents, that the driver must bear the brunt of the blame. Consequently, it is unlikely that the two deductions would be aggregated, with many judges using the higher figure in isolation.
The concept of contributory negligence is relatively straightforward on paper but can sometimes be challenging to prove. However, it demonstrates the fact that where a claimant is at least partially responsible, this will be reflected in any compensation award. Consequently, many passengers may now think twice before ignoring seatbelt laws or getting into a vehicle with a driver whose abilities have been impaired.