Tag Archives: contributory negligence

Football Player Sues Canadian University for Brain Injury

September 22, 2013

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By Amy Ulveland – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a coach is defined as: a person who teaches and trains the members of a sports team and makes decisions about how the team plays during games [emphasis added]. In many ways, the role of a coach is analogous to that of a parent: just as a coach must respond to an individual’s needs while seizing opportunities to develop character, so too must a parent. While both may use fear to motivate individuals to act in a certain way, this must be tempered with a steady diet of support and encouragement. In other words, they both serve as role models (for better or worse), and exert an observable degree of control. In this role, coaches and parents may be viewed as infallible, all-knowing creatures, but they are not. They are human, and in exercising judgment, mistakes will be made. Indeed, there is no one-size-fits-all manual.

In R v Jobidon, the Supreme Court of Canada was tasked with considering whether an individual could directly or impliedly consent to force causing bodily harm. In taking a contextual approach, the Court paid some attention to sporting activities: “… the policy of the common law will not affect the validity or effectiveness of freely given consent to participate in rough sporting activities, so long as the intentional applications of force to which one consents are within the customary norms and rules of the game. Unlike fist fights, sporting activities and games usually have a significant social value; they are worthwhile.”

The line remains blurry; one can appreciate the difficulty of placing guilt within a sporting context. Players assume a heightened level of risk as part of ‘playing the game.’ With the above in mind, I turn to the recent lawsuit launched by former amateur football player, Kevin Kwasny, against his former coach, and Bishop’s University (see article here).

Kevin was 21-years-old at the time – in his prime – when life as he knew it changed forever. After being hit on the football field and suffering bleeding on the brain, Kevin’s severe brain injury left him and his family with hefty medical bills, and a lifetime of assisted-care. Kevin’s lawsuit essentially argues that his coach and Bishop’s University were negligent in forcing him to go back out to play after showing signs of a concussion from an initial hit on the field.

There are two questions at issue: 1) whether Kevin’s coach was negligent in instructing him to go back out on the field after learning Kevin was feeling dizzy from a hit; and, 2) if so, whether Bishop’s University is vicariously liable for Kevin’s brain injury and damage caused as a result of its member coach’s negligence?

The case will turn on whether or not Kevin’s coach knew or ought to have known that his current state would worsen thereby causing him permanent brain damage, as a result of sending him back out to play. Therein lies the rub: coaches are neither doctors, nor medical specialists. The duty of care is there. The question becomes: what standard of care did Kevin’s coach and university owe him? The court will measure his conduct against that of the ‘reasonable coach’ in similar circumstances. Recognizing coaching styles are as varied as parenting styles, there are certain cues that a ‘reasonable person,’ let alone a ‘reasonable coach,’ ought to recognize and prudently act on.

Showing signs of dizziness after being hit is a telltale sign that an individual is not ready to go back out on the field (where he or she is likely to get hit again).

The court will find some guidance in the CIS Code of Ethics which reads, in part, as follows:

“90.60.2.2 – Responsible leadership is a priority in ensuring the full development of individuals as a whole. Inherent within the implementation of this principle is the notion of competence whereby personnel will maximize benefits and reduce risks to participants by being well prepared and current within the field of sport.”

Issues of causation and proximity will be at the centre of debate, but in my opinion, the court is likely to find that Kevin’s coach was contributorily negligent in pushing him back out on the field after learning of his condition. As the court may be reluctant to place guilt solely on his coach, for public policy reasons cited above, there is a good likelihood it will find Bishop’s University vicariously liable to deter such type of bravado on the field. No individual is expected to be superman – on field or off.

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Jumping Backward to Poppleton again: Why ‘Pinchbeck v. Craggy Island Ltd (2012) [2012] All ER (D) 121 (Mar)’ may have been wrongly decided

March 21, 2012

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While the case itself is unreported except in the All England Reporter, a number of newspapers carry the story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2115749/Craggy-island-leap-Louise-Pinchbeck-leapt-wall-hurt-ankle-100k-payout.html

The Claimant (Louise Pinchbeck) successfully brought a negligence claim against Craggy Island Ltd (an indoor rock-climbing centre) for injuries sustained during a bank team-building day organised by her employer in March 2008.

While the claimant had not had much experience rock-climbing, she had spent two hours that morning being closely supervised by two instructors top-roping on a high (40ft) wall with safety harnesses. The injury occurred when she was bouldering without any harnesses on a low (4m) wall and twisted her ankle when she jumped off onto the matting suffering compound ankle fractures.

Although an attempt was made by the defendants to suggest that P’s apology for making a fuss amounted to an admission of guilt, the Court held that this apology should only be taken as an expression of embarrassment and the case proceeded to trial.

While an instructor was supervising the low wall, the claimant argued that no formal instruction for the low wall was given to her other than not to have more than two people on the wall at any one time and she felt that the bouldering wall was almost like a ‘play session’ to cool down. The  defendant disputed this allegation and suggested that the claimant received a full safety briefing, however the court held that on the balance of probabilities, the claimant had not been given any clear instructions on how to descend from the wall, and that no clear prohibition was given not to jump.

The Court further held that the defendant had assumed responsibility for the claimant by providing instructors and that:

“the defendant had known that the claimant had, to that point, only climbed upwards that day and had therefore known, or ought to have known that she was at a disadvantage on the low wall. By not instructing her not to jump down from the wall, the defendant had failed to discharge its duty of care to the claimant.”

The Court also held that the instructor should have:

  • Been aware that there had been previous injuries sustained historically from other climbers
  • observed that the people P was climbing with had also jumped from the wall, prior to P’s injury

This seems a crazy counsel of perfection and one has to wonder what has happened to the doctrine of inherent risk, or to the application of s1 of the Compensation Act? Indeed, while the case digest summary shows the Court was cited Poppleton, they also seem to have disregarded the CA judgment in favour of the earlier (now overruled) High Court decision! Jeremy Howe’s digest summary (in his report of the case for the All England Reporter) suggests that the Court held that the risk of this injury could and should have been prevented by proper instruction, and that this breach of duty made the case unsuitable for an application of the volenti non fit injuria principle, although the claimant should be held 1/3 contributory negligent.

While this analysis is indeed legally correct, it presupposes that there had been a breach of duty. If this is true, possibly the Court was swayed by what it saw as a culpable failure of the defendants that needed punishment, rather than any general duty owed to climbers / boulderers. Indeed without this explanation, it seems difficult to reconcile with the recent CA rugby case of Sutton v. Syston where a breach of duty by the club (to perform a pitch inspection) did not ultimately cause the accident.

It may be worth considering whether had the defendants not ‘assumed responsibility’ by providing an instructor whether liability would have been imposed? To the best of my knowledge, there is no formal qualification for a UK bouldering instructor to hold (unlike the Single-pitch award for top-roping). Given this, did the defendants actually owe the claimant a duty to provide an instructor, or to remind them that jumping from a wall onto mats was dangerous? Indeed, hadn’t we already established both this lack of a duty and the fact that gravity hurts in Poppleton?

If this is indeed an accurate reflection of the case, the sooner it can be appealed the better, to leave it as it is would indeed be a backward jump.

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Bicycle races are coming your way so forget all your duties, oh yeah!: An analysis of Reynolds v Strutt & Parker LLP [2011] EWHC 2263 (QB)

September 20, 2011

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The dangers of relying on Queen lyrics as legal precedent is illustrated in the personal injury case of Simon Reynolds (a 49yr old property consultant), who suffered head injuries when he fell from his bicycle following a collision with another rider in a team-building race on 19th June 2008. 

BACKGROUND

The race was part of a team-building event for the 35 staff working in the Canterbury office of Strutt & Parker (a national property consultancy and estate agency). Following a normal morning of work, 30 of the staff met in the boardroom to be divided into six teams of five for a mystery treasure-trail around East Kent, culminating in a trip to Fowlmead Country Park for the second stage of the day.

For those that have never been, Fowlmead Country Park is set amongst 200 acres regenerated from the shale spoil of the former Betteshanger Colliery site, and contained a 2 mile long tar macadam-surface road and cycling track. The idea was to run three types of events, an active and energetic event (the bicycle race), a harmonious and steady event and a thoughtful and considered event.

Each team would effectively sub-divide itself into two pairs and a single person to compete in these events, although it was stressed at the High Court that the purpose of the event was for fun and enjoyment rather than as a competitive and regimented exercise like many traditional team-building days. By the time, the groups reached Fowlmead, many were quite rowdy, having consumed Peroni beer along the route for refreshment.

The bicycle race was held in heats of two teams of two riders, the objective being to finish either 1st, 2nd or 3rd, with the losing team of two being eliminated. The claimant was in the last of the three preliminary heats. Unfortunately, this proved to have quite a competitive undercurrent to it, with tension at the starting line as the claimant jostled for position in a narrow gap, despite the startline for the four riders being 8m wide! [18]. The claimant led for the start and was on target for a first place finish, when 20-25m down the finishing straight, he deliberately leaned to his right to cut up his closest rival, Alistair Cracknell, who was attempting to pass him down a gap on the inside. Cracknell lost control of his bike and in the resulting collision, the claimant was also thrown from his bike and suffered head injuries.

In echoes of recent overtaking manoeuvres (and collisions) in Formula One, the Court held that the claimant made a deliberate decision to behave in an aggressive manner, reckless as to the consequences [26]. This positioning by moving to the right despite there being no racing line or need to do so on a finishing straight is a key factor behind the accident and also immediately distinguishes the case from Caldwell v. Maguire and Fitzgerald [2001] EWCA 1054 where the claimant was not aware of the position of the horses behind him going into a tight left hand bend. As such, the court held that the claimant should hold the greater proportion of the blame and found him two thirds liable.

During the course of the case, a number of questions were raised:

  • Was the event part of the claimant’s employment? (which would bring him under the more favourable duties owed by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974)
  • Should all the riders have been provided with mandatory cycle helmets to wear?
  • Had the defendants adequately assessed the risks of the event?

 

DO ALL ESTATE AGENTS RACE BIKES AT WORK?

While both sides accepted that there were corresponding common law (negligence) and statutory (health and safety) duties, the question of whether the event constituted ‘work’ was important for establishing the extent of the duty, as statutory duties in this instance were arguably stricter [34]. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the defendants argued that the event was not compulsory and that,

“the afternoon was intended to afford entertainment and enjoyment to staff in a social atmosphere, and for no part of their work.” [3]

By contrast, the claimant suggested that all employees were expected to attend, the event was managed and organised by the employer, would be to the employers benefit by fostering an esprit de corps and that there was no deduction from their salaries [35].

The Court struggled to pinpoint any case or principle on the limits of employment, trying unsuccessfully to apply traditional vicarious liability and the Salmond “close connection” tests [35]. Oliver Jones QC (sitting as the Judge) finally concluded that a jury would:

 “simply say that the defendant’s staff were not engaged in any job for their employer; they were just having a good time, until, that is, the claimant, of course, sustained his unfortunate accident.” [37]

With respect though, it is difficult to see how this conclusion can be justified, indeed it is internally inconsistent with the conclusions over the employer’s assessment of risks and their duties under the Compensation Act (see later). How can an employer be liable for the organisation and management of an event [40], yet their employees not be engaged in a ‘work activity’ whilst attending it? When my employer arranges team-building events or away days, attendance is expected, especially if they fall on traditional working days. I thought that Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd [2002] widened the scope of employment and vicarious liability, not narrowed it to only traditional working activities. I can hear the reverberations across golf courses all around the country. The effect of this Reynolds definition of employment is that while you are concluding business deals or networking on the golf course, you may not actually be working!

The judgment also continues at [38] to suggest that justness and reasonableness would be offended if the Health and Safety at Work Act and associated provisions were ever intended to be applied to cases such as these. While it is true that the drafters of the Acts probably didn’t envisage bicycle racing estate agents and property consultants, however if these activities were being carried out as part of an employer-organised event, why shouldn’t they apply? Indeed isn’t that the subtext behind paragraph [46]?

“I have been referred to and considered the terms of section 1 of the Compensation Act 2006. Whilst the reward of employees by employers in ways such as that chosen in this case is a desirable activity, I am quite satisfied that requiring employers to take reasonable precautions for their employees’ safety will not discourage employers from doing it, or discourage employees from taking part. On the contrary, fun activities are likely to be more attractive if employees are assured that their safety has properly been considered.”


IS CYCLING DANGEROUS?

Crucially, the case hinged around the duty of Mr Church and Mr Backhouse (senior partners at the defendants) to arrange and to organise the event, and to ensure that their employees were reasonably safe in engaging with the activities laid on [40]. The problem was that the defendants risk assessment extended to prohibiting a proposed mountain biking activity as being unsafe [12]. They did not consider any of the risks associated with falling off a bike, or colliding with other riders during the race [24]. (As a very new cyclist, I can testify that both of these risks are patently obvious, indeed anybody that has watched me ride might even go as far as to say expected!) To suggest that the defendants were naïve in this respect is somewhat of an understatement. I accept that one might expect all riders in a professional race to be competent and to a certain extent this is self-selecting (although one only has to note Bradley Wiggin’s recent injury to see that collisions are a part of even professional races). In the current case though, the teams were randomly chosen with no pre-checks or the riders’ competency, indeed the cycle race did not even have a written risk assessment. While it is obvious that the defendants were not aware of the risks, this omission could have been identified had they sought the advice of the Fowlmead management in the risk assessment process, or as the Judge put it:

“This is not a matter of wisdom with hindsight. Where those who are unfamiliar with the organisation of a potentially dangerous activity do not themselves have training or experience in that activity, it is common sense to seek advice and assistance of those who do; in this case, the management of the facility they were going to use.” [42]

Given the failure to perform an adequate risk assessment, the Court was left with little choice but to conclude that:

“Neither partner organising the event had the necessary skill or knowledge to make either a suitable or sufficient assessment of risks associated with bicycle racing, and for that reason, completely overlooked what was, in my judgment, the most obvious of risks in any racing competition, namely the risk of collision between competitors.” [28]

Even then, by itself, this failure was not a direct cause of the injury to Mr Reynolds, however following Uren v Corporate Leisure UK Limited [2011] EWCA Civ 66, a failure to carry out an adequate risk assessment could be indirectly causative of the injury if the precaution it should have identified (cycle helmet) would have avoided the injury [41]. Sadly this was the case here.

SHOULD YOU WEAR A HELMET WHEN CYCLING?

While there is no law that suggests that the use of a cycle helmet is compulsory, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommended their use and helmets were available at the event. Personal injury case law on cycling, most recently, Smith v Finch [2009] EWHC 53 QB (discussed in detail on this blog) also suggests that the failure to wear a helmet when cycling casually on the roads could amount to contributory negligence. Given that finding, it should come as little surprise that this principle is extended to sport:

“Those who engage in competitive racing, even for fun, or perhaps because it is fun, should be held partly to blame for the failure to protect themselves.” [45]

Because the claimant did not wear a helmet, despite suitable equipment being offered and available to him (even though only 1 other rider availed himself of a helmet), the Court held that this constituted contributory negligence.

My advice to any cycling event organisers – make sure that your riders wear helmets and don’t take Queen lyrics too seriously! 

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Moore Winter Sports accidents

October 25, 2010

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Emma Moore v. Hotelplan (T/a Inghams Travel) & Mr Adriano Tantera [2010] EWHC 276 (Ch)

This case concerns an accident while undertaking winter sports, more particularly an organised evening snowmobile (‘skidoo’) ride at the Italian ski resort of Passo Tonale in January 2007. The claimant was a 37yr old personal trainer on a group skiing holiday organised by the defendant operator (Inghams). The company subsequently joined a third party (Mr Tantera) to the action as he provided the skidoos and instructed the party as to their use.

The action arose when the claimant lost control of the skidoo as the group was descending down the mountain. The claimant collided at speed with a parked car at the foot of the slope causing spinal injury and paralysis at T5 (mid-chest).

The action was for:

  • breach of contract,
  • breach of tortuous / delictual duties owed under Articles 2050 and/or 2043 of the Italian Civil Code
  • Negligence

The case was made more complicated by the fact that the defendant denied responsibility for the activity and blamed the third party entirely, to the extent that it claimed any actions of the Ingham representative on site were merely as an agent for Mr Tantera.

The Court at [7] identified five key questions:

  1. What were the contractual arrangements for the skidoo trip?
  2. What instructions were given to the claimant as to the control of the skidoo, and in particular was she instructed in the use of the engine cut out, the cut off button?
  3. What was the cause of the claimant’s loss of control of the skidoo?
  4. Would the operation of the cut-off button have prevented the accident?
  5. Was there contributory negligence on the part of the claimant?

Taking each in turn,

Although the holiday was booked by another member on behalf of the group four months previously and purported to exclude liability for any subsequent third party excursions, the Court held at [28] that Mr Tantera operated this excursion on behalf of Inghams through a contract signed in 2002, and viewed the party as Ingham customers [16]. The Court also relied on the fact that the Skidoo’s were advertised in an Inghams’ welcome pack [11], the party paid Inghams for the trip [12], received a receipt on headed Inghams notepaper [12], were not told that the onsite representative (Ms Hodges) was acting for a third party [13], had to exclusively book the excursion through Ms Hodges [24] and had to sign disclaimers (that were subsequently not relied on as they were for a different vehicle) on behalf of Inghams [14]. Given these findings, the contract for the supply of the skidoo excursion was also impliedly subject to the original liability clause meaning that Inghams was liable for any injuries and consequent losses “caused by the lack of reasonable care and skill” on the part of Mr Tantera [29].

Having established potential liability, the next question was to establish whether the defendants through Mr Tantera had breached their duty to the group in failing to give clear operating instructions for the Skidoos. The Court heard a number of mechanical arguments relating to the Skidoos (Polaris 550 Fun Sport Edge 136 Touring snowmobiles), but essentially this section can be summarised as a factual discussion of the safety briefing. The Court heard that all members of the group chose to wear helmets, despite the fact that this was non-compulsory [33], and that several members of the group were complete novices. The party also stated unanimously that the safety briefing took 30 seconds each [34-39], and that no-one was shown what or where the cut-off switch was. This contradicted Mr Tantero’s evidence that he spent 2-3 minutes with each person and that his usual practice was to give such an instruction [41]. The most damning bit of evidence though came from Ms Hodges who described Mr Tantera’s briefing in her witness statement as:

“When he briefs each driver he first asks (in English) if it is their first time on a skidoo, then he switches on the engine himself, they are not allowed to do this. He then tests the accelerator, which is on the right, and says “this is the throttle-accelerator; it is an automatic clutch, no gears”. He then shows them the brake on the left-hand side and says “this is the brake”. Stay in line, five to six metres separation, no overtaking, no slalom.” [40]

 Unsurprisingly the Court preferred the evidence of the party and held that Mr Tantero had not shown the group the cut-off switch, thereby breaching his duty to the claimant.

 The Judge held that the accident occurred when the Skidoo was going too fast on the downhill return leg of the journey, 45mins into an otherwise uneventful trip. Although the Court heard from two expert witnesses, it preferred the defendant expert’s view that an examination of the skidoo after the accident had shown no defects with the mechanical operation of the vehicle, suggesting driver error was to blame for the accident. In particular the Judge held that the claimant most probably drove too close to the skidoo in front of her, swerving to avoid it and in her panic hitting the accelerator rather than the brake [65].

The causation question of whether an application of the cut-off switch could have prevented the accident was comparatively straightforward and the Court held at [74] that it would have done.

The only question remaining was whether the claimant was contributory negligent. At [80], the Court found that there were two errors the claimant made that materially contributed to the accident, the first was driving too close to the skidoo in front, the second was in applying the throttle rather than the brake (although the Court was careful to suggest that she should not be judged too harshly for her confusion in the ‘heat of the moment’). The Court however rejected the argument that the claimant should have noticed and applied the cut-off switch.

In summary, the Court suggested that “the Claimant created the emergency, but as a consequence of the negligence on the part of Mr Tantera in failing to instruct her as to the use of the cut-off button in an emergency, she did not have the means of dealing with it in a manner that would have avoided the accident”, although Mr Justice Owen did award 30% contributory negligence.

There are two other interesting elements to the case that are worthy of consideration, the first is a scathing judgment on the quality of the evidence from one of the defendants experts’ (a Mr Christopher Exall). At [75], the Court suggested that there were: “a number of gravely disquieting features of his evidence, culminating in the assertion in his third report, made under an expert’s declaration of truth, that he had had discussions with a Mr Michael McDowell of Polaris UK, an assertion that, as he was forced to concede in cross-examination, was subsequently untrue. I do not propose to set out the other actions on his part which on any view were indefensible for a witness under an obligation to the court to give impartial and objective evidence. But there can be no doubt that he took on the role of an advocate for the defendant. He did not give impartial evidence, and was wholly discredited as a witness. I could not place any reliance on any part of his evidence.”   Ouch!

The other comment interesting part of the judgment relates to insurance. At [17], the Court quoted from the Defendant Reps Manual Winter 06/07 which contained the following paragraph under the heading ‘Snow-mobiling’: “You will find that snow mobiling and ski-doo’s are offered in many of our ski resorts but the normal holiday insurance cover does not include any liability cover for damage, injury or death caused to third parties. The liability cover held by the operator and included in the price or offered as an extra, is unlikely to be anywhere near adequate in the event of an accident causing serious injury or death to a third party…..”

I don’t know about you, but while the Court did not comment on this paragraph, I think it is worth pausing a few minutes to reflect on it. Essentially isn’t Inghams saying they know that not only is their insurance cover excluded by the holiday contract, but that the operator’s own insurance cover is inadequate, even if purchased as an add-on extra! In fact it makes me so worried, that on my next skiing holiday, it would be perhaps be better if I Skidon’t and we stick to the planks of wood (or fibreglass!).

Youtube clip of a skidoo jump:

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Should you wear a helmet every time you cycle?

March 31, 2009

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Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/outrage-at-ruling-on-helmets-for-cyclists-1645736.html; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3563671.stm; http://www.cyclistsdefencefund.org.uk/cycle-helmets-and-law; http://www.newlaw-directories.co.uk/jobboard/cands/newsview.asp?id=1492

 

Read the full case report of Smith v. Finch [2009] EWHC 53 (QB) here: (http://www.ctc.org.uk/resources/Campaigns/0902_Smith-v-Finch-judgment_brf.pdf)

 

 The case of Smith concerns a cyclist (Robert Smith) who was struck and knocked off his bike by a motorcyclist (Michael Finch), while making a turn at a junction. At face value, this seems simply a run-of-the-mill traffic collision case, indeed the exact facts of the incident were disputed and the defendant argued that it was the claimant who was responsible for causing the collision by pulling out as he did. The case is important however because the defendant also argued that in the event that he should be found liable, the claimant should have his damages reduced for being contributory negligent for not wearing a cycle helmet and it is this part of the decision that has provoked the most controversy.

 

After listening to various witnesses give evidence, the court found in favour of the claimant, stating that in all likelihood, the defendant had been driving at an excessive speed and had ridden much too close to the claimant as he tried to overtake him [38]. Ultimately, the claimant also succeeded in rejecting any allegations of contributory negligence as the court found that the mechanics of his head injury would not have been reduced or prevented by a helmet [56]. The court did however suggest that in other cases, a deduction could be made.

 

In particular, the court at [43] stated that: “as it is accepted that the wearing of helmets may afford protection in some circumstances, it must follow that a cyclist of ordinary prudence would wear one, no matter whether on a long or a short trip or whether on quiet suburban roads or a busy main road.”

 

The court concluded that given the concern of the government and road safety campaigners was to reduce road accident casualties, “the cyclist who does not wear a helmet runs the risk of contributing to his / her injuries” [45] even if the initial cause of the collision was not their fault.

 

Although roundly criticised in the press, at face value, the approach of the court does seem to agree with Dr Julian Fulbrook’s 2004 article on “Cycle helmets and contributory negligence” published in 3 JPI Law 171-191. The article suggests that an automatic 25% deduction for not wearing a cycling helmet was wholly unjustified. Dr Fulbrook did however suggest that there were limited instances where a helmet could have prevented an injury and on these occasions, damages could be reduced by 10-15%.

  

Note the comments though of Martin Porter QC (http://www.newlaw-directories.co.uk/jobboard/cands/newsview.asp?id=1492 /159 New Law Journal (2009) 337) Who argues that Smith departs from the previous High Court case of A (a child) v Shorrock [2001] All ER (D) 140 (Oct) where Judge Brown stated that if he had found liability against the defendant, he would have made no deduction for contributory negligence for failing to wear a cycle helmet as there was no fault: the use of a helmet not being mandatory and the type of cycling by the claimant not being unusually hazardous.

 

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