Should compensation be reduced for not wearing a seatbelt?

It's a requirement of law, but does wearing a seatbelt impact the amount of compensation given by the Courts?

As we discover in Nyholt v Nominal Defendant [2008] QSC 273, the answer isn’t that straightforward.

Steven's Story.

Let me introduce you to Steven Nyholt.

Steven was a young guy who worked as a newspaper delivery driver.

Each work evening, Steven would drive from Townsville to Cairns, delivering newspapers along the way.

Steven would leave Townsville at 11 pm, make his deliveries, and return by about mid-morning.

He had worked the job for about a year, knew the route, and even had a ritual of stopping at Tully for a cup of tea before continuing.

One evening, Steven set out on his route like any ordinary day. But what happened just a few hours later was anything but ordinary.

What went wrong? 

Steven delivered newspapers to the first few locations before stopping in Gordonvale. He could always throw the papers out the window for the first few deliveries, but at Gordonvale he had to get out of the car to walk a bundle of newspapers up to a newsagency.

When he hopped back into the van, he took off without putting on his seatbelt.

As he drove away, rain began to fall. By the time he reached the highway, it was raining heavily.

Steven was approaching an S-bend in the road when he saw a car coming from the other direction.

He noticed the car's high-beam headlights were turned on, but because of the turns in the road, they weren't aimed at Steven.

The situation changed as the road straightened out. Rather than shining away, the car's headlights now shone directly into Steven's eyes.

“It wasn’t until I went around the corner, that’s when the high-beam dazzled me.”

- Steven 

Steven was devastated.

His whole life had changed.

He lost his job. He could no longer complete simple household or personal duties without assistance.

He even had to move house as his wheelchair couldn’t fit through doorways.

Money became tight. His medical and care bills were astronomical. There was no way Steven was going to be able to make ends meet on his own.

No one should be left seriously injured because of another person’s error.

But what happens if you don't know who the driver is?  How can you get the compensation you deserve?

Thankfully the government has recognised this gap and has provided an avenue for people like Steven to claim compensation under the Nominal Defendant.

Much like a claim under the CTP insurance scheme, a claim under the Nominal Defendant can give Steven financial support to cover the cost of his lost income and medical bills.

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Introducing the Nominal Defendant.

What is the Nominal Defendant?

Click to reveal it's definition

Nominal Defendant

Steven brought proceedings against the Nominal Defendant for compensation for his injuries.

Steven claimed that his injuries were caused by the unidentified driver's negligent use of high-beam headlights. He argued that the high-beams impaired his vision, causing him to lose control of the van and suffer extensive injuries.

For Steven's case to succeed he had to prove that the other driver was negligent and he did not contribute to his injuries.

Was the other driver negligent?

Even without witnesses to support it, the Court accepted Steven’s version of events. The straightforward way he gave his evidence left a positive impression on the judge, who believed he was not elaborating his story.

The Court said:

  • The unidentified car’s driver ought to have realised the high-beam lights would have impaired a passing driver’s vision (especially in the rainy weather);
  • By using the high-beam lights, that driver was guilty of negligence;
  • Therefore, the driver was responsible for Steven’s injuries.

So, the Court found that the other driver was negligent.

But was Steven contributorily negligent?

...by not wearing a seatbelt? No. 

Specialists were called to examine whether Steven ended up with worse injuries by not wearing a seatbelt. While the opinions varied, one specialist said wearing a seatbelt would not have lessened his injuries (in fact, the damage may have been worse if he became trapped in the van).

Ultimately, the Court was not satisfied that Steven would have sustained significantly lesser injuries had he been wearing his seatbelt. Therefore Steven was not guilty of contributory negligence for not wearing a seatbelt.

...by not acting reasonably? Yes. 

The Court said that had Steven slowed down earlier than he did, he would have been better able to control the van.

By not slowing down when he first saw the high-beam lights in the distance, and by not “flicking his lights” at the other driver to tell them their high-beams were on; Steven was guilty of contributory negligence.

The court met Steven halfway. 

The Court decided that both drivers shared the blame equally. The unidentified driver should not have had his high-beams on, and Steven should have acted more cautiously.

The Court awarded Steven $2,375,000 (50% of his assessed damages).

Steven's case highlights that the Court assesses every case on it's unique circumstances.

The assessment of negligence was unusual in this case. According to the case…

1. Not wearing a seatbelt MIGHT NOT be negligent (in particular circumstances)

Steven's case had very unusual circumstances, in that not using a seatbelt might not have increased his injuries. Statistically, drivers and passengers involved in collisions are eight times more likely to be killed if they do not wear a seatbelt.

Here, the Court said failing to wear a seatbelt was not contributorily negligent, but this is not usually the case. A person bringing a claim for compensation due to a car crash should be aware that not wearing a seatbelt may reduce their compensation (and increases their risk of injury).

2. Using high-beam headlights and failing to slow down MIGHT be negligent. 

Steven’s case also highlighted the importance of taking proper precautions on the road, including:

  • only using high-beam headlights where it is safe to do so;
  • slowing down when in, or approaching, dangerous situations.

Not taking into consideration your safety (and the safety of others) while driving can contribute to your injuries or the injuries of other people.

The courts will think carefully about who caused the accident.

Failing to slow down when presented with a dangerous situation will likely cost you compensation. In Gary's case, it was $2.5 million.

Written by Verity Smith | Law Graduate