Contributory Negligence in Fatal Motorbike Accident Claim

This was a particularly harsh object lesson in the application of contributory negligence (partial blame).  I acted for the family, young girlfriend and baby son of a Devon man who had been killed when on the back of his mate’s R1 Yamaha.  Both men were dependent on benefits, had no working history worth talking about and both had girlfriends with young babies, living with their parents.  Both had a known history of considerable daytime drinking and the smoking of illegal substances.  “Irresponsible” might be one of the milder epithets to come to mind, especially considering that the friend had managed to obtain finance to buy what was then the fastest road-legal production bike on the planet.

The pair had spent the late morning downing considerable quantities of cider, as well as smoking a bit of weed.  They had both hopped on the Yamaha, which was then ridden at race speed and on a race line through some local ‘S’ bends.  On exiting the last of these, the bike had been completely on the wrong side of the road, at a speed that expert accident investigators subsequently calculated to be in excess of 120mph, when it came face to face with a Land Rover.  The rider did not brake or take any evasive action (almost certainly because of faculties dulled by booze and cannabis) and the bike simply vapourised itself against the front of the Land Rover, projecting both rider and pillion through the windscreen and out via the rear side window into fields.  Both were killed instantly.

My task was to obtain compensation for the bereavement of the parents of the pillion passenger; and more especially, for the loss of financial benefit to his girlfriend and baby son as a result of his death.  That was an uphill task, not least because of the lack of any reliable evidence about his working history or likelihood of working in the future, but because of the undoubted significant reduction that contributory negligence would cause.

I had the unpleasant task of trying to explain to a grieving family and girlfriend why they, the innocents in all this, would not get the full value of whatever compensation we could put together, because the dead man had been partly responsible for his own death.  Not because he had any control over the riding of the bike- but because he had voluntarily got on the back when he knew full well that his mate had taken a significant amount of alchohol, as well as illegal drugs, and was probably in no fit state to ride.  The rationale of the law is this:- if the pillion had survived and brought the claim on his own behalf, it would undoubtedly have been reduced because of his actions.  Why then should his estate and dependents, notwithstanding their innocence as regards the actual accident, be in any better financial position than he would have been?  Logically, they should not be- and that is why they, standing in his shoes as it were, ended up with only a fraction of the value of the claim.