A nurse involved in a road accident which caused “catastrophic” injuries to her young niece could have been distracted by her mobile phone, a High Court judge has found.
Mr Justice Stephens also identified negligence surrounding the booster seat and seatbelt used to strap in the two-year-old child before the crash in Co Down.
At the time the girl’s aunt had been tired after completing a hospital night shift, he concluded.
However, he ruled that liability was established against a van driver who collided with their car on the Rubane Road, Kircubbin in August 2014.
The child, who is now aged four and given anonymity, sustained serious spinal and abdominal injuries.
She was travelling with her aunt who had just come off duty at the Ulster Hospital, the court heard.
With an assessment of damages put on hold, a preliminary hearing centred on issues of liability.
Both motorists gave conflicting accounts of how the frontal collision occurred, blaming each other for drifting from their respective sides of the road.
According to Mr Justice Stephens the girl’s aunt had a mobile phone in the Volvo car but no hands-free device.
Examinations established six calls were made to her husband during the journey from the hospital – most of which did not connect.
“The use of the mobile telephone is to be seen not only in the context that it dangerously distracts her attention whilst driving, but also in the context that the first defendant had just finished an 11-hour night shift and was entrusted with safely transporting the plaintiff,” the judge said.
“The use of a mobile telephone was an entirely inappropriate standard of driving by the first defendant.”
However, he stressed that it had not been alleged that the aunt was calling or connected to another phone at the time of the crash.
Lawyers for the second defendant van driver also claimed the use of an inappropriate child seat caused or contributed to the child’s injuries.
Delivering his verdict, Mr Justice Stephens rejected evidence from the aunt that the girl’s father approved the booster seat.
Describing the nurse as untruthful on some issues, he said: “I have found that she was tired, though not excessively so, after an 11-hour night shift and I have found that she could have been distracted by her mobile phone.”
Despite this, he backed her account of how the collision occurred.
The Volvo was on the correct side of the road when the van veered over, according to the judge.
The driver of the van and its owners are liable to the child, he confirmed.
Mr Justice Stephens added: “I have found negligence on the part of the first defendant (her aunt) in relation to the child’s seat and the use of the seatbelt.
“The issue as to whether the first defendant is also liable to the plaintiff awaits determination as to whether this caused or contributed to the plaintiff’s spinal or abdominal injuries.”