Written by Peter CarterOctober 18, 2011
After Christmas day lunch in 2005, 17-year-old learner driver Debbie-Jo Simpson got permission to take a farm vehicle for a drive with her brother Sam.
Treated as part of one old-fashioned modern family, they were enjoying the splendid hospitality of Jandowae farm owner, Lindsay Grundy – with whom her grandmother resided. Debbie-Jo was a competent learner driver. Not far from where they started out, she rolled the Bluebird car and because she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, sustained multiple injuries. Sam, who was belted up, received only minor injuries.
Debbie-Jo sued Grundy because she said, he should not even have countenanced her driving without any accompanying adult. The extent of her losses was agreed for the purpose of the trial at $200,000. The lawsuit “fractured the extended family” and her honour had “strong reservations” about the “rehearsed” evidence given on both sides during the three-day trial in June.
Her evidence was described as “odd” and “gave a clear impression of being tutored or tailored to suit her case”. In a “combative” episode, Debbie-Jo had insisted that she got permission to drive from a “non-family member” but could not recall who that might have been. Accepting that she had memory problems as a result of the accident, her honour nevertheless found the plaintiff’s lack of memory, “extraordinary”.
Accepting that Grundy was in control of the car and indeed owed a duty in respect of its use, he was exonerated on the basis that not forbidding the drive she proposed was not a breach of that duty. Finding that it was “common for country teenagers to drive on private property before they are old enough to obtain a licence”, her going for a driver did not amount to anything extraordinary.
Rather – accepting as most reliable the account that of the plaintiff’s stepfather and mother – they “knew her driving ability and temperament better than he and they were content for her to drive”. Grundy had “heard them warn her”, said her honour and “there was no reason to suppose they were not acting responsibly in the plaintiff’s interests”.
Thus, the potential tortfeasor was insulated from liability because he was entitled to rely on the supervision of “people who had more responsibility for her care”. And because the Bluebird was in good condition and the roadway safe, his duty extended no further.