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Hughes v Williams, High Court, 25 April 2012

24 May 2013

The issues

Road traffic – RTA – child – child car seat restraint or failure to use – contributory negligence – liability of parent or driver

The facts

Louise Williams was the mother of Emma Hughes, the claimant. In August 2006 she was driving on the A528 near Wrexham in North Wales with her daughter Emma then aged three years two months. On the rear offside seat of her car Ms Williams had fitted a Mamas and Papas 5-point harness child restraint seat. She had also fitted a Graco booster cushion. She bought the booster cushion shortly before the accident because she did not think Emma looked comfortable in the Mamas and Papas seat. On the evening of the accident Emma was seated on the booster cushion restrained by the adult seatbelt adjusted to shoulder height. At the time of the accident both booster cushion and Mamas and Papas seat were fitted on the backseat. The defendant, Dayne Williams, was driving in the opposite direction in his car when he lost control, swerving into the path of Ms William’s car. She was blameless as regards the cause of the accident. The defendant was killed in the accident and Emma suffered severe injuries.

Part 20 proceedings were brought against Ms Williams on behalf of the deceased defendant’s estate. The defendant argued that Ms Williams was in breach of her duty of care to Emma in restraining her on the Graco cushion rather than in the Mamas and Papas seat.

The decision

A parent owed a duty of care to her/ his child to take reasonable steps to ensure that a child was secured with an appropriate seat restraint when travelling in a car. However, except where there was a clear failure, whether there was a breach of that duty was likely to be fact-sensitive since the characteristics of children differed so much even in the case of young children and there might be a number of reasonable options available. The approach to be adopted had been set out by the Court of Appeal in Jones v Wilkins (2001). In that case the Court of Appeal decided that the reduction by way of contributory negligence for a failure to wear a seatbelt depended on the extent to which injuries would have been prevented by wearing a belt, or would have been less severe. The Court of Appeal approached the issue on the basis that the question was not ‘what was the cause of the accident’, but ‘what was the cause of the damage’? The court held that the guidance was equally appropriate where the issue concerned a contribution under the 1978 Act.

Was there a breach of duty? Manufacturer’s instructions should not be blindly treated as determinative of liability questions. However, the instructions in this case could not have been more explicit in terms of both as to the requirements and the consequences for misuse. “Failure to use booster seat in a manner appropriate to your child’s size may increase the risk of serious injury or death”. In the absence of special circumstances individual judgement however understandable and well-motivated could not override the requirements that were stated for use of a child’s safety seat. It was negligent to place Emma on the Graco booster seat. The harness seat was available for use in the car. Would the injuries have been avoided or reduced? Expert evidence had been called on both sides. The court accepted that if seated in the child seat, Emma’s injuries would largely have been avoided.

What contribution should be ordered? It had been argued on behalf of Ms Williams that the effect of a finding against her would be that as a tort feasor she would be unable to recover in respect of the voluntary care which she had been required to give Emma on account of her injuries. Counsel for the defendant and the defendant’s insurer’s undertook that no such a point would be taken against her.

The court was bound to follow the rules laid down in Froom v Butcher as interpreted in Jones v Wilkins. The evidence had established that if the child seat had been used the injuries sustained would largely have been avoided. A contribution of 25% would be ordered.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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