Where a person sues for death benefits, can their own contributory negligence be raised against them?
Walter Meek was about to have a very bad evening. Meek, employed as a bus driver by Guiseppe Locco, was driving on Williams Road in East St Kilda, Australia on the night of 5 June 1941. It was never clear how he came to hit the car driven by Alfred Carstein. There had been no rain that day. The collision killed a 40 year old passenger in the car, Margaret Carstein, who was Alfred’s mother.
Mrs Carstein left behind a husband and thirteen children. Her widower, George Carstein, retained the law firm of JW Galbally (now Galbally & O’Bryan). He sued Locco on his own behalf and on behalf of their children under Part III of the Wrongs Act 1928. Sections 15 and 16 of the Act relevantly provided that
15. Whensoever the death of a person is caused by a wrongful act neglect or default and the act neglect or default is such as would (if death had not ensued) have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages in respect thereof, then and in every such case the person who would have been liable if death had not ensued shall be liable to an action for damages notwithstanding the death of the person injured and although the death has been caused under such circumstances as amount in law to felony.
16. Every such action shall be for the benefit of the wife husband parent and child of the person whose death has been so caused …
These provisions live on in ss.16 and 17 of the Wrongs Act 1958.
Locco raised the defence that Mrs Cartein’s widower guilty of contributory negligence “by his servant or agent, Alfred Leonard Carstein”. George Carstein applied to strike out that part of the defence.
The application was ruled on by Gavan Duffy J. His Honour ordered that the relevant parts of the defence be struck out. He reasoned that in a case such as this, the issue of negligence was decided as if the deceased were herself bringing the case. If the defendant’s negligence would have entitled the deceased to sue successfully, then the defendant would be liable. It followed that the negligence of either George or Alfred Carstein was simply irrelevant.
The matter was ultimately heard by a jury which found Meek and Locco to have been negligent. Mr Carstein and his family were awarded damages of £2,000 (current value $161,936.21): Carstein v Locco (1941) Morwell Advertiser, 27 November 1941 at 1.