A teenager who suffered brain injuries in an accident in a stolen car driven by one of his mates, has been told by the Supreme Court that he cannot sue the driver for damages.
The teenager took his fight to the Supreme Court of Queensland, but the court has ruled that because both boys stole the car together, the driver is not liable for resulting damages to his partner in crime.
On a night in February 2013, four boys planned to steal a car and went hunting for a vehicle. They came across a Toyota Hilux parked in a driveway with keys in the ignition. They rolled the car onto the street before jumping in and starting the engine. After a short drive, travelling at speeds between 80 to 90 kilometres per hour, the 16-year old driver lost control.
The court heard evidence that the driver was looking at the speedometer “in shock” when he crashed into a light pole.
Neither of the boys were wearing seatbelts, and the 14-year-old in the front passenger seat suffered severe head injuries. He is now disabled and needs 24-hour care.
The driver’s lawyers relied upon section 45 of the Queensland Civil Liability Act, which states that a plaintiff (in this case, the passenger) is not owed a duty of care if “engaged in conduct that is an indictable offence”.
The lawyers submitted that by helping to steal the car, the passenger was engaged in a “joint illegal enterprise of unlawfully using a motor vehicle”, which is an indictable offence under Queensland law.
The 14 year old passenger’s lawyers contended that their client effectively ‘withdrew’ from the illegal enterprise just before the accident occurred. However, the Supreme Court found that there was insufficient evidence to support that claim.
Supreme Court Justice Martin Daubney ultimately found in favour of the driver, noting there was no evidence that the passenger asked to be let out of the car or otherwise ceased participating in the joint criminal activity.
“He was an active participant in the actual stealing of the vehicle, and went along for the ‘joyride'”, the justice noted.
“On the plaintiff’s best case, he did nothing more than yell at the defendant to slow down.
“That was, at highest, a request for the defendant to stop speeding, thereby engaging in reckless or dangerous driving.
“But it was neither an express nor a tacit communication of withdrawal from the joint illegal enterprise of unlawful use of the vehicle.”
His Honour also found that the teenager’s injuries would likely have been far less severe had he been wearing a seatbelt, with one expert giving evidence that there was “almost no possibility” of the brain injury if a seatbelt had been worn.
The case stands as a warning that complicity in a crime can result in a loss of legal entitlements.