Catastrophic Injuries - A Cautionary Tale

Background

In 2009, a (then) 15 year old boy ran across a road after his two friends in Richardson, when he was tragically struck by a passing vehicle.  The impact caused the infant plaintiff to suffer catastrophic injuries. When the two friends ran across the road, the driver of the vehicle looked across the road, took her foot off the accelerator.  The driver’s foot hovered over the brake pedal in the fear the two would run back onto the road. In looking in the direction of those two boys, the driver did not see the plaintiff then step onto the road.  By then it was too late.

The plaintiff commenced an action in negligence against the driver in the ACT Supreme Court, which was heard before Elkaim J in June of 2018.  The plaintiff was ultimately unsuccessful in his action, which led to an appeal being hearing this year in the ACT Court of Appeal.

First Instance Findings

The first instance judge found that the plaintiff failed to prove that the driver was negligent, essentially because she acted reasonably in the (albeit unfortunate) circumstances.  In particular, it was found that the plaintiff himself was more negligent than the driver for stepping onto road when it was not safe to do so.  The driver, in the court’s view, was not acting unreasonably by having her attention on the two other boys.

In case his decision on liability was appealed, Elkeim J went on to assess the plaintiff’s damages (notwithstanding he would not received any sum with an unsuccessful verdict against him).  Had he won though, Elkaim J assessed the plaintiff’s damages quite highly; in excess of $8 million, though held that sum should be reduced by 75% for the plaintiff’s own contributory negligence.  As it turns out His Honour’s liability decision was appealed.

The Appeal – Lee v McGrath [2019] ACTCA 6

On appeal, the ACT Court of Appeal upheld the first instance judge’s findings, concluding that the driver was not liable in negligence. The plaintiff argued that the driver should have looked back across the road to the plaintiff’s direction faster than she did, as to do so may have allowed her to slow down faster to prevent the collision. However, the Court of Appeal accepted that the driver’s distraction by the two boys running across the road was a reasonable response to their emergence. The Court of Appeal also did not find that plaintiff was necessarily visible to the defendant when the first two ran across the road, meaning there was no reason for his presence to have been anticipated.  Whilst the outcome of the accident, and the litigation, was tragic for the plaintiff, the duty of care owed by the defendant driver was high, as motor vehicle drivers owe a higher standard of care to pedestrians, due to the level of harm that can be caused. The courts generally look at the circumstances of each case in determining, whether or not, a standard of care has been met. Section 45(1) of the Civil Law (Wrongs) Act 2002 (ACT) (the CL Act) establishes a ‘but for test’ for causation, whereas, section 46 of the CL Act addresses the burden of proof. In determining liability for negligence, the plaintiff always bears the burden of providing, on the balance of probabilities, any fact relevant to the issue of causation.  That the driver “may” have done things differently to have avoided the accident, is a distinct question to whether she was acting reasonably – which the courts accepted she was.

Key Lessons

This case demonstrates the harsh reality of negligence law, which can leave an individual that is injured in a motor accident without an award of damages if they are unable to prove that the driver was negligent or at fault.

Although such an injured individual may be unable to claim compensation through the courts, they may be eligible for care, support, treatment and rehabilitation under the ACT Lifetime Care and Support Scheme. Individuals that have been catastrophically injured in motor accidents in the ACT, regardless of fault, may be eligible for the scheme. The scheme covers pedestrians, cyclists, motor bikes and motor vehicles as long as one vehicle involved in the motor accident had compulsory third party cover. Catastrophic injuries include:

  • traumatic brain injury
  • spinal cord injury
  • amputations
  • burns
  • permanent blindness.

For more information on the scheme please visit: https://apps.treasury.act.gov.au/ltcss/home

If you need advice about being injured in a motor vehicle accident, please contact the Litigation team at BAL Lawyers.