Allowing yourself to be driven by someone who you know has been drinking is itself negligent and, if an accident occurs, your right to compensation is likely to be badly affected. The High Court made that point in the case of a young man whose life was wrecked when a friend drove his car into a head-on collision with a lorry.
The man, the driver and the driver's brother had spent the evening drinking heavily in a nightclub. The man became so drunk that he had to be assisted out of the club by his friends and was helped into the front seat of the driver's car to sleep it off. The driver and his brother returned to the club and continued drinking.
When they emerged from the club in the early hours, the car would not start. The brother returned to the club to find some jump leads but, when he came back, the car had gone. The car later collided head on with the lorry at a combined speed of up to 114 mph. The driver died instantly and the man was so severely injured that, four years after the accident, he remained in a minimally conscious state. The driver's brother subsequently took his own life.
After proceedings were launched on the man's behalf, the driver's motor insurers admitted primary liability for the accident. However, they argued that the man had been negligent in permitting himself to be driven by someone who he knew was unfit to drive due to alcohol consumption. They also submitted that his failure to wear a seatbelt was a negligent act which contributed to his injuries.
Ruling on the matter, the Court found that the man was not so drunk that he had no capacity to take care for his own safety. He knew that the car belonged to the driver and that he was the only one likely to drive it. He was aware of how much the driver was drinking from early on in the evening and whilst all three of them were in the club. He had somehow moved from the front seat of the car to the back prior to the collision and that was consistent with him consenting to remaining in the car whilst it was driven away.
There was, however, no evidence that the trio had previously agreed that the driver would take them home. Had the man not been placed in the car by his friends it was quite possible that he would have taken a taxi home. He could not have known how much the driver continued to drink after returning to the club. Given the extremely high speed of the collision – the car ended up wedged beneath the lorry's chassis – the Court found that the man's failure to wear a seatbelt made no significant difference to his injuries.
Overall, the Court ruled that the man's damages should be reduced by 20 per cent to take account of his own negligence. In the absence of agreement, the amount of his compensation would be assessed at a further hearing.