In a landmark case, the High Court gave the first reported ruling on parental responsibility to supervise a child who is involved in a road traffic accident caused by another person.
The case

In 2008, our client’s (Ms Ellis) eight-year-old son, Caine, went to the park with his cousins. Whilst he was there he crossed the road next to the park and was knocked down by a speeding driver. The driver was travelling far above the 30mph speed limit in a quiet, residential area when he hit the boy who, consequently, suffered life-changing injuries.

During Caine’s compensation claim against the speeding driver, the legal representatives of the driver joined Ms Ellis into the claim as another defendant alongside the driver. They alleged she failed to care for him by allowing him to play in a nearby park without an adult present and her decision to do so was part of the reason he was injured.

Joining Ms Ellis in the case had a knock-on effect on her son’s compensation claim. Due to Caine’s age and injuries, he needed a Litigation Friend to make decisions in his best interests; to liaise with his solicitor about the case, receiving advice and giving instructions. As a defendant in the claim, Ms Ellis could no longer be the Litigation Friend to support her son. Instead, Caine’s grandmother took on the role, and Ms Ellis had to take a step back.

Joining Ms Ellis into her son’s claim was a cynical attempt to reduce the amount of compensation the defendant’s insurance company will have to pay. If it could be proved that Ms Ellis was responsible – even only bearing a tiny proportion of the blame – she would be barred from claiming any of the compensation she would otherwise be entitled to for the gratuitous, specialist care she provided to her son over many years because of the life-changing injuries he suffered.

We successfully supported Ms Ellis in defending the driver’s claim against her (not allegations of contributory negligence against the child), and the High Court dismissed the claim, finding her to be “a responsible mother who took proper care for Caine’s safety” and ruled that the driver was wholly to blame.

What does this mean?

The court’s decision is a huge relief for Ms Ellis and her family who have gone through unnecessary stress at an already difficult time and helps to secure long-term care for Caine. She will now be properly compensated by the court for all the times over the years since the accident when she went above and beyond to care for her son. Securing this entitlement could have an impact on family finances, rather than just her personal money.

Parental responsibility can be difficult to define. The court confirmed that the test a parent should be measured against is the standard of a reasonable parent and recognised that responsible parenting comes in many forms, encompassing a range of approaches and not based on prescriptive rules.

The court also said that the law should not impose too high a standard on an “ordinary parent making ordinary decisions in the course of parenting as to how to keep her child reasonably safe while gradually being allowed more responsibilities and freedoms.” It would be inappropriate for the law to regulate decisions in the course of normal daily parenting.

The judgment recognised the importance of children being allowed to “experiment with small freedoms”, such as playing outside, going to a park without an adult and crossing the road without holding an adult’s hand.

Anecdotally, we know insurers have argued parental responsibility in various personal injury cases in the past and put pressure on child claimants in out of court settlements, but there are no reported cases in similar situations involving child pedestrians, hence this being a landmark decision. The clear message to insurers is to think carefully before joining parents in as Defendants in this way, heeding Her Honour Judge Yip’s advice, “real caution should be exercised both by courts considering claims against parents and by insurers in deciding whether it is appropriate to join parents.”

The decision will be very helpful to other parents whose children are injured, especially in road traffic accidents, because of another person’s negligence. It is hoped it will dissuade insurance companies from trying to avoid paying compensation for parental care by unfairly alleging parents are to blame. As thousands of children are injured on our roads every year, the implications for children and their families could be far-reaching.

Further information

If you have any questions arising from this briefing or would like to find out more about the support we can provide in personal injury cases, please get in touch with Ann Houghton. Ann and the team at Anthony Collins Solicitors have a wealth of experience in supporting people or families of those who have suffered catastrophic injuries due to the negligence of others.