Appropriateness of child car seats: Contribution claims and use of passenger restraints
Dayne Williams (Deceased) v Louise Williams
Re: Hughes (a child) v Dayne Williams (Deceased)
30 April 2013
Court of Appeal
Graham Dickinson and Sophie Broch acted for the defendant and his insurers in this Part 20 contribution claim arising out of a road traffic accident. In April 2012, the High Court found that the mother of a three year old child claimant had been negligent in placing her child in an inappropriate restraint, and that this had contributed to the severity of her injuries. That decision has now been upheld by the Court of Appeal in a judgment which provides a comprehensive analysis of the legal principles to be taken into consideration in child passenger restraint cases and focuses on what is to be regarded as relevant evidence.
On 19 August 2006 the claimant, then three years and two months old, suffered multiple and severe injuries, including a spinal cord injury, in a road traffic accident. She was a rear seat passenger in a car being driven by her mother (Louise Williams, the “appellant”), which was involved in a collision with a car driven by the defendant, Dayne Williams (no relation).
Primary liability for the accident was accepted on behalf of the defendant, who died as a result of his injuries. The contribution claim against the appellant and her insurers arose from the fact that the claimant had been seated on a booster seat rather than in the five-point harness child restraint seat that was also available in the car at the time. At trial, Blair J made a finding that the appellant was liable to the extent of 25% for the claimant's injuries. Ms Williams appealed against the finding of partial responsibility.
Issues on appeal
The key questions addressed by Lady Justice Black, Lord Justice Elias and Lady Justice Arden were:
- Whether the appellant was in breach of her duty of care to her daughter by placing her on a booster seat rather than in the five-point harness seat.
- The extent of any contribution payable, taking into account the injuries that would have been suffered had the claimant been restrained in the five-point harness seat.
The argument on Breach of Duty
The appellant argued that the finding of negligence was wrong as: (a) the relevant question was whether the appellant took the care that a reasonably careful parent ought to have taken in the circumstances; and (b) the trial judge had given too much weight to the manufacturer's instructions for use of the booster seat.
Focus was placed upon the information that would have been available to the reasonably careful parent. Particular reliance was placed by the appellant on the fact that the claimant satisfied the weight requirement for the booster seat and what was said to be the practice of many other parents at the time, even though she was not yet tall enough to fall within the appropriate height range for the booster seat.
The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, noting the similar situation in the case of Jones v Wilkins  R.T.R. 19, where the claimant’s mother was found to be 25% liable for placing her child on her lap, partially strapped in with the adult belt, despite expert evidence that “ordinary members of the public do not understand how dangerous such an action is”.
Applying the same principle here, notwithstanding what many other parents might have been doing at the time, the product manual, containing explicit warnings including minimum height requirement, which the appellant admitted she had read, had to be read with the product’s purpose in mind, i.e. safety, said the Court of Appeal.
It was also argued for the appellant that it was not reasonably foreseeable by her when she chose to place the claimant on a booster seat that it would result in materially greater injuries, in the event of an accident, than if she had been placed in a five-point harness seat. The judge had allowed hindsight to play an inappropriate part in his assessment, it was said.
The Court of Appeal also rejected this submission, again on the basis of the “clear and repeated warnings” within the instruction manual of the booster seat. The appellant had accepted, in evidence at trial, that the manual left her in no doubt that failure to follow the instructions could give rise to serious injuries and that she knew that the claimant did not fit all the requirements laid down for the seat’s use.
It was also argued for the appellant that the judge was wrong to place emphasis on the fact that there was a safer option available in the car; the question was, rather, whether the appellant was negligent to have used the booster seat. She could not be negligent merely because she chose to use what turned out to be the less safe of the two options, it was argued.
This argument was based upon the fact that the judge had not made an explicit finding that the booster seat was unsafe, but only that the five-point harness seat would have been safer. The Court of Appeal did not accept that analysis of the judgment.
The appeal was also based on the argument that the judge should have had regard to the fact that there was no evidence that “a hypothetical child” who did meet the manufacturer’s criteria would have been safe on a booster seat, and that it was not established that the discrepancy between the claimant’s height and those dictated by the manual instruction made any material difference to her injuries.
Emphasis was also placed by the appellant on expert evidence that if the claimant had been 8cm taller, i.e. meeting the height requirement for the booster seat, then her injuries would probably have been similarly serious.
The Court of Appeal again did not agree, saying that whilst there may be circumstances in which obeying the seat instructions would not have prevented the injuries, and conversely, disobeying them would have made no difference to the outcome, causation issues cannot be considered “in a vacuum”. As Lady Justice Black explained, “the actual circumstances are what matter”.
The argument on the extent of the contribution
At trial, the judge was bound to follow the rules set out in Froom v Butcher  Q.B. 286 in deciding upon an equitable level of contribution, that is on the basis of the extent to which the claimant’s injuries would have been reduced had the correct restraint been used. Despite the judge having no doubt that the appellant was an excellent and caring mother, on the evidence, and applying the relevant authorities, he had ordered a 25% contribution.
The appellant argued that:
- The judge failed to have proper regard to the fact that, as the law stood at the time, if no suitable restraint was available the claimant could have simply been strapped in with an ordinary adult seatbelt.
- He failed to balance justice and equity as between the defendant and the appellant, bearing in mind the fact that the appellant was blameless as to the cause of the accident.
- He was inappropriately influenced by hindsight, when the appellant’s liability had to be determined upon the basis of the circumstances prevailing at the start of the journey.
- Froom v Butcher was not applicable as that case applies to failing to use any seatbelt at all, whereas the appellant had used a safety restraint, albeit the wrong one. It was argued that the case of Capps v Miller  1 W.L.R. 839 should have been applied and that the appellant’s degree of responsibility should, similarly, have been 10%.
The Court of Appeal did not accept these arguments. It was clear, the court said, from Froom v Butcher that the court’s aim was to provide guidelines that would be applied robustly and the more recent case of Stanton v Collinson  EWCA Civ 81 provided a reminder of the “powerful public interest” in there being no “prolonged or intensive enquiry” into “fine degrees of contributory negligence”. Further, the Court of Appeal reminded itself that it will only interfere with an apportionment of liability “where it is clearly wrong or there has been an error in principle or a mistake of fact” (Jones v Wilkins).
Here there were parallels with both Froom v Butcher and Jones v Wilkins and the judge was entitled to follow the guidance in those cases rather than Capps v Miller. He was also entitled to conclude that in the circumstances a 25% contribution was just and equitable.
The Court of Appeal therefore dismissed the appeal but reiterated the judge‟s recognition that the appellant was an excellent and caring mother. The court noted that there were, no doubt, other similarly caring parents who would have done as she did but this did not determine the issue of liability, nor did the fact that she was in no way to blame for an accident that had such tragic consequences.
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