Failure to Wear a Seatbelt and Contributory Negligence

This blog post explores how failing to wear a seatbelt may result in a finding of contributory negligence and how it can impact a personal injury claim.

History of the Seatbelt Defence

There may be safety risks and legal consequences associated with failing to wear a seatbelt. Historically, one of these was the so-called “seatbelt defence.”

Ordinarily, an injured person is entitled to full compensation if they can establish the defendant’s negligence caused the accident, unless the defendant successfully argues a defence. A common defence for failing to wear a seatbelt in a motor vehicle accident was the “seatbelt defence.”

Before the Contributory Negligence Act was implemented, the “seatbelt defence” was a complete defence available to the defendant. If the defendant successfully established that the plaintiff’s injuries could have been prevented by wearing a seatbelt, the plaintiff would not receive a damages award. The courts were not willing to compensate plaintiffs who were held partially responsible for their own injuries. These plaintiffs had no recourse against a negligent defendant. This was essentially an “all or nothing” approach. An injured person was either entitled to compensation or their entire claim failed.

The law has since shifted and no longer takes such a harsh stance against the injured person. Under the Contributory Negligence Act, the injured person can recover damages even if they are held partially responsible for their injuries. The “seatbelt defence” is now considered a partial defence and falls under the category of contributory negligence.

What is Contributory Negligence?

Contributory negligence is based on the principle that everyone has a duty to take reasonable care for their own safety. If an injured person engages in unreasonable conduct, such as failing to wear a seatbelt, and thus contributes to their own injuries, they are said to be “contributorily negligent.” That is, their own “negligence”, in failing to take reasonable steps to ensure their own safety, contributed to their injuries and the damages they suffered.

For example, a court could rule that a person is partly responsible for their own injuries if they suffered from injuries that could have been prevented or reduced by wearing a seatbelt, such as shoulder injuries and head injuries.

This is the scenario that occurred in Heller v Martens, 2002 ABCA 122. Mr. Heller was involved in a motor vehicle collision. He was not wearing a seatbelt and suffered a severe shoulder injury. The court found that had Mr. Heller worn a seat belt, his injuries would have been much less severe. Mr. Heller was found to be 25% contributorily negligent, and as a result, his damages award was correspondingly reduced by 25%.

Mr. Heller’s case illustrates both the types of injuries that could occur in a motor vehicle accident from failing to wear your seatbelt and the consequences it can have on your personal injury claim.

How can Contributory Negligence Impact a Damages Award?

A claim will not fail if an injured person is contributorily negligent, but they may receive less compensation to reflect the fact that they are partially responsible for their own injuries. If an injured person is contributorily negligent, their award may be reduced by the degree to which they are at fault or partially responsible for their own injuries. For example, if an injured person is found to be 15% contributorily negligent, the damages award may be reduced by 15%.

How Can a Personal Injury Lawyer Help?

Claims involving contributory negligence can be complex. It is difficult to determine at the onset exactly how contributory negligence may impact a claim. A personal injury lawyer can assess the situation, explain the options and argue on the injured person’s behalf to minimize the effect of a finding of contributory negligence.

If you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact us today to book your FREE initial consultation.


The information provided on this website does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. Moustarah & Company does not guarantee that this information is accurate or up to date. As a result, should you require legal advice, please contact a lawyer.