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Jul 5, 2013

Are there implications to benefit coverage if a child was injured in a car accident and the car seat was improperly installed?

The basic principle of liability is that if you are negligent – that is, do not take the appropriate care towards a person who you should know may be affected by their actions – and that person is hurt, then you are responsible for compensating that person.  So, if you, as an adult, don’t take care to properly install a baby seat, and you put (or allow) a baby in that seat to go for a ride, and then the baby gets hurt, then you may be responsible for compensating that baby.  Of course, your responsibility only extends as far as your negligence is the cause of the baby’s losses.  Allow me to illustrate with a couple of examples.

Imagine that the baby is strapped into a car seat in the back seat of the car by his mom, but she doesn’t secure the car seat to the car at all.  While dad is driving baby to daycare and mom is a passenger, they are hit by an SUV that ran a red light, and the baby sustains a brain injury from hitting his head and will require life-long care. Dad is not responsible for the accident at all – if the SUV driver hadn’t ran the red light, the baby would be fine.  In this situation, there are at least two, probably three, negligent people: the SUV driver, for running a red light; mom, for not securing the car seat, and dad for not ensuring that the car seat was properly secured.  (The Highway Traffic Act imposes a duty on the driver of a vehicle to ensure that all minors are wearing a seat belt or secured in a child seating system.  This statutory duty is probably enough to attract a finding of negligence.)

Clearly, the driver of the SUV has to contribute to compensating the baby.  How much do mom and dad have to contribute?  Well, if the baby’s head got hit because the SUV slammed into the side of the car and the baby’s car seat went flying and his head went through the window, then the mom is going to bear a lot of responsibility, maybe even up to half.  If the SUV rammed the car from the back, and the truck and back seat crumpled up and pushed the baby into the front seat, then the mom probably won’t be responsible for anything.  Why the difference?  Because in the first case, if the car seat had been properly secured, the baby probably wouldn’t have hit its head; the seat would have functioned to protect it, so the mom’s negligence meant the baby was more hurt than it would have been.  In the second case, the baby would have hit the front seat even if the car seat had been secured properly, so the mom’s negligence didn’t actually affect how badly injured the baby is.

Ironically, in some cases the baby will have much more money available to cover his future care and income if his parent’s weren’t careful with him, because in car accidents, and many other accidents, it is not the negligent individual who pays, it is their insurer.  The SUV driver, mom, and dad will pay no more than a premium increase in their car insurance. If the baby’s losses are two million dollars over the course of his life, and both cars have million dollar policies, then if only the SUV driver is responsible, the baby will only have access to one million dollars (unless the SUV driver is independently wealthy, the baby is not likely to be able to recover much from him individually).  If the baby’s parents are also responsible, however, then the baby also has access to another million from their insurer, and gets fully compensated.

Answer provided by Moira Gracey

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