The case of Froom v Butcher [1975] investigates the idea of whether not wearing a seatbelt could be seen as contributory negligence. Contributory negligence is the idea that the claimant’s conduct affected their own safety, increasing the damage or harm they suffered in the accident. Therefore, this case examines the question of whether someone injured in a road traffic accident, who was not wearing a seatbelt, should have to take any responsibility for their injuries, and if so, what does this responsibility look like.

Case Facts

Mr Froom was driving his wife and daughter home one day from Southend, all of whom were not wearing seatbelts. Mr Froom gave reasons for this, he explained how he had seen many accidents in which the seatbelt had trapped the driver in the car and therefore he did not like wearing one. He also explained how as a man of his age – he was 57 – he always stuck to normal speeds.

On this day, he was driving his family in the car at speeds of 30-35mph, when a car in the opposite lane pulled into Mr Froom’s lane to overtake. The driver, Mr Butcher, was driving at very high speeds and struck Mr Froom and his family head on.

The impact forced Mr Froom against the steering wheel. From this, he sustained a broken rib and bruises on his chest. His finger also was broken from the impact of the incident. The injuries were not that severe; Mr Froom was back at work the next day.

Mr Froom brought a personal injury claim against Mr Butcher.

The First Instance Court Hearing

The defendant, Mr Butcher, accepted responsibility for the accident but argued that Mr Froom’s damages should be reduced as Mr Froom had contributed to his own injuries by failing to wear a seatbelt.

At the first instance hearing, however, the judge awarded Mr Froom £450, without any reduction for contributory negligence. Mr Butcher appealed the decision.

The case went to the Court of Appeal.

The Issues for the Court of Appeal

Wearing a seatbelt was not legally enforced in the UK at this time, thus Mr Froom could not be penalised for failing to wear a seatbelt under criminal law. However, because Mr Froom’s personal injury claim was a civil law matter, it was open to the Court of Appeal to determine whether his failure to wear a seatbelt would constitute contributory negligence under the Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945.

The Court’s Conclusion

Lord Denning suggested that, while negligent drivers must bear by far the greatest share of responsibility for a road traffic accident, if the damage suffered by the injured person might have been avoided or lessened by a seatbelt, then the injured person failing to wear one must bear some share of responsibility for their damage.

From this, Lord Denning established the following guiding principles:

  • If the injuries sustained could have been completely avoided by wearing a seatbelt, then the damages should be reduced by 25%
  • If the injuries sustained could have been a good deal less severe or lessened, then damages should be reduced by 15%
  • If the injuries sustained would have been the same, even if a seatbelt had been worn, then the damages should not be reduced at all.

The Law Reform (Contributory Negligence) Act 1945 allows that when any person suffers damage as the result of partly their own fault and partly the fault of another person or persons, they should not be prevented from claiming compensation just by reason of their own personal fault. This means that any claimant found to have contributed to the severity of their own injuries, which have been caused by another party, should still be entitled to claim for damages, however the damages recoverable shall be reduced at the court’s discretion.

Mr Froom’s failure to wear a seatbelt can be seen as failing to take reasonable care of his own safety, and the court accepted evidence that Mr Froom’s chest injuries could have been avoided completely if he had been wearing a seatbelt. Lord Denning stated that, based on this evidence Mr Froom should share responsibility for his injuries and the damages that he could recover should, be reduced. The court could not ignore however, how Mr Froom suffered a broken finger as a result of the accident. It was found that this would not have been avoided, even if Mr Froom had been wearing a seatbelt, and therefore the court had to take this into consideration when determining the reduction of Mr Froom’s damages.

It was held by the court that Mr Froom’s damages be reduced by 20%, to account for his own part in the injuries he sustained, both avoidable and unavoidable.

 Summary

To summarise, Mr Froom’s failure to wear a seatbelt can be categorised as contributory negligence, as it increased the severity of the injuries he sustained as a result of Mr Butcher’s negligent driving. From the reductions in his damages, we can see how Mr Froom shared responsibility for the extent of his injuries, which demonstrates that the failure to wear a seatbelt does mean sharing responsibility for harm sustained in a road traffic accident, provided that the harm in question would likely have been lessened, or avoided completely, by wearing a seatbelt.