Failure to wear a seatbelt constitutes contributory negligence

High Court of Australia: In the instant case, the respondent sustained serious spinal injuries which rendered her paraplegic, when she was thrown from the back seat of a car being driven by the appellant who was drunk at the time of the accident. The issue for determination was whether the respondent was contributorily negligent  for choosing to travel in the car driven by the appellant when she ought to have known that he was intoxicated and, secondly, for failing to engage her seatbelt.

The trial Judge rejected the contention of the respondent that the appellant’s erratic driving had prevented her from fastening her seatbelt and held that failure to wear a seatbelt constitutes contributory negligence under Section 49 of the Civil Liability Act 1936. The Judge further held that the exception in Section 47(2)(b) of the Act applies in the present case as the respondent could not reasonably be expected to have avoided the risk of riding with the appellant in the circumstances. On appeal, a majority of the Full Court of the Supreme Court of South Australia dismissed the appellant’s appeal on the Section 47(2)(b) issue, and allowed the respondent’s cross-appeal on the issue of Section 49 and held that her failure to fasten her seatbelt was a result of her direct and natural response to the appellant’s erratic driving.

The appellant appealed to the High Court on both issues. A bench of French CJ, Kiefel, Bell, Keane And Gordon JJ unanimously dismissed the appeal on the Section 47(2)(b) issue and held that the respondent, who suffered major injuries as a result of a motor vehicle accident, was not contributorily negligent under Section 47 of the Civil Liability Act 1936 for travelling in a car driven by an intoxicated driver, as according to the facts of the case, she could not reasonably be expected to have avoided the risk of travelling with the appellant. However, the Court allowed the appeal and affirmed the trial judge’s finding that the appellant’s driving did not prevent the respondent from fastening her seatbelt and accordingly held that the respondent was contributorily negligent under Section 49 of the Act for failing to wear the seatbelt. [Alex Allen v. Danielle Louise Chadwick, decided on 9-12-2015]

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