Seatbelts and the Law
posted in: Personal Injury Compensation
Seatbelts are now accepted as a necessary safety precaution by many. However, people still get into accidents without them. In this blog we look at what happens in those cases.
You may have heard of the “seatbelt defence.” This is a term that is used to refer to what we call contributory negligence. Contributory negligence is a legal doctrine which arises when the harm someone has suffered was partly caused by their own actions. Not wearing a seatbelt is one of the most common ways this can happen. In fact, contributory negligence is a very common defence to any sort of negligent driving. It will almost certainly be argued if you were in an accident and were not wearing a seatbelt.
How do the Courts View Seatbelts?
In the context of a motor vehicle accident claim, people who are injured while not wearing a seatbelt are often considered partially responsible for their own injuries. The Ontario Court of Appeal put it this way:
“The plaintiff’s contributory negligence is the failure to take reasonably prudent steps to protect herself from injuries that might result from an accident caused by another’s negligence. The failure to wear a seatbelt may be said to be a “cause” of the plaintiff’s injuries only in the sense that it contributes to the extent of the injuries suffered. If the plaintiff had been wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident caused by the defendant’s negligence, the injuries would have been less severe or even avoided altogether.”
To add to this, the Supreme Court of Canada has noted: “The courts in this country have consistently deducted from 5 to 25 percent from claims for damages for personal injury on the grounds that the victims were contributorily negligent for not wearing their seat belts. This has been done whenever it has been demonstrated that the injuries would have been reduced if the belts had in fact been worn.”
The Alberta Court of Appeal has held that wearing a seatbelt is a departure from the standard precautions that reasonable people will take to protect themselves.
So, if you are injured by a negligent driver, Alberta courts will recognize that your injuries were ‘caused’ by that driver in the normal sense of the word. However, if you weren’t wearing a seatbelt, they will also recognize that you failed to take adequate care to protect yourself.
How Does Contributory Negligence Affect Compensation?
Contributory Negligence is what is known as an incomplete defence. This means that the person who raises the defence will still be liable for the harm they have cause BUT they will not have to pay the full amount which they would otherwise be required to.
When the Supreme Court talks about 5-25% contributory negligence, what that really means is that the damages for which the Defendant is liable will be reduced by that amount. For example, if a person is rear-ended by another driver while not wearing their seatbelt. A court would base their compensation on the type of injuries they suffered. Depending on how much the absence of a seatbelt restraint contributed to those injuries, their compensation will be reduced.
If that Plaintiff would otherwise be entitled to $200,000 in damages but it was decided that a seatbelt would have done a lot to prevent their injuries. That Plaintiff might be 25% contributorily negligent. Instead of $200,000 they would only get $150,000!
Other Reasons to Wear a Seatbelt
Losing out on 25% of your personal injury compensation is very bad; however, the most important reason to wear a seatbelt is because they protect you. Studies suggest that seatbelts can cut the risk of serious injury in half! Provincial law also requires that you wear a seatbelt when operating or riding in any vehicle that has one.
Overall, wearing a seatbelt is the smart choice. You will be less likely to be injured, and if you are you will be more likely to get the compensation you deserve.
 Snushall v. Fulsang, 2005 CanLII 34561 (ON CA)
 Galaske v. O’Donnell,  1 SCR 670, 1994 CanLII 128 (SCC)
 Vehicle Equipment Regulation, Alta Reg 122/2009.
See also Heller v. Martens, 2002 ABCA 122.