Every year, motor vehicle accidents take Australian lives and injure many more. People who are wrongfully injured in motor vehicle accidents can obtain compensation for their injuries to help them return to their normal lives. However, sometimes the injured person’s actions can contribute to their injuries and this contribution can be taken into account by the court when assessing compensation – trhis is the doctrine of ‘contributory negligence’. In large claims this contribution can see a reduction in the compensation of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Allen v Chadwick  HCA 47, a recent High Court case, looked at the issue of ‘contributory negligence’ and shed new light on when a passenger of a motor vehicle might, or might not, be considered to have contributed to their injuries, especially when the driver is known to be drunk. In 2007, Ms Chadwick was a pregnant 21 year old woman who had been having an ‘on and off’ relationship with Mr Allen. After arriving in an unfamiliar town at around 1.30am, Ms Chadwick, Mr Allen and Mr Allen’s friend decided to go for a drive. Mr Allen and Mr Allen’s friend had been drinking throughout the day so Ms Chadwick drove. After they had been driving for about 15 minutes, Ms Chadwick stopped in a dark unfamiliar street outside of town. Mr Allen then took the driver’s seat and pressured Ms Chadwick to get in the car despite her requests for Mr Allen not to drive.
Seeing no alternative, Ms Chadwick entered the rear right-side of the car and Mr Allen sped off before she could close the door. Mr Allen was driving very aggressively and in all the commotion, Ms Chadwick failed to put on her seatbelt. Mr Allen attempted a sweeping left-hand bend causing the car to spin out and subsequently collide with a tree. Ms Chadwick catapulted out of the car where she hit the ground and suffered acute spinal injuries rendering her a paraplegic.
Under the South Australian Civil Liability Act 1936 (SA) (“the Act”), which was the law applying to this claim, an injured person can be 50% contributorily negligent for knowingly choosing to travel with an intoxicated driver. Also, an injured person can be 25% contributorily negligent for not wearing a seatbelt. Ms Chadwick therefore faced a 75% reduction in the damages recoverable for her injuries and other losses.
In this case, the Court took into account that Ms Chadwick was in an unfamiliar area outside of town in the middle of the night. It therefore held that Ms Chadwick had no reasonable alternative but to enter the vehicle with Mr Allen. She therefore avoided any reduction in her damages for that reason. However, the Court held that Ms Chadwick had enough time in the vehicle to put on her seatbelt, and as a result of her failure to do so, they found her 25% contributorily negligent.
Each state and territory has varying laws dealing with the issue of contributory negligence, and it is therefore important to know the law that applies to a particular accident.
If you require assistance in relation to a personal injury or related matter, please contact our personal injury team today.