February 7, 2019

Motor: High Court rules on standard of the ‘reasonable driver’ when under threat of physical harm

The High Court has ruled on the issue of liability when a driver causes injury to a third party in circumstances when fearing for his or her safety.

It was made clear that a breach of duty in negligence involved the application of the test of objective reasonableness. In this instance, the actions of the First Defendant in attempting to flee the scene had not fallen below the standard of the reasonable driver.

Background

The First Defendant, Mr Barnes, entered a McDonald's in Bolton with a group of his friends. A verbal altercation ensued with another group. When leaving, one of Mr Barnes' friends made racially provocative comments.

The driver of a Mercedes parked in the McDonald's car park, Mr Bagas, believed he was the target of the comments and got out of his car along with the Claimant, who was a passenger, to confront Mr Barnes' group.

It was alleged that Mr Bagas kicked and hit Mr Barnes' vehicle, challenging him to a fight before opening the driver's door and attempting to pull him from his car. In "a panic and fearing for himself and his passengers' safety", the First Defendant fled the scene in his car. As he did so, he collided with the Claimant, who was stood in front of the vehicle. The Claimant suffered serious injuries.

The Claimant pleaded that the First Defendant had been negligent but did not plead that the First Defendant had used his car as a weapon. Mr Barnes denied negligence as well as pleading self-defence and necessity.

Mr Barnes had previously been acquitted of the criminal charge of causing serious injury by dangerous driving.

Outcome

Mr Justice Turner found D1 had acted reasonably in circumstances where he believed that he was under attack. The Defendant was in genuine fear for his safety and that of his two female passengers.

The Court found that accelerating away was reasonable and understandable in the circumstances and his actions did "not fall below the standard of the reasonable driver placed in the threatening and rapidly developing situation in which he found himself. In these circumstances he is not liable in negligence."

The Court also elected not to provide comment on any contributory negligence which may have been attributable had the First Defendant been found to have been negligent.

What can we learn?

  • The key issue before the Court was that of the objective reasonableness of the First Defendant's actions when establishing whether or not he had been negligent.
  • Mr Justice Turner ruled that the defences of self-defence and necessity merited no separate consideration. He stated that "This does not, of course, mean that the court must ignore the fact that any given defendant was acting under particular circumstances involving elements of self-defence.... However, such circumstances must be taken to comprise no more than factors to be taken into account in the balancing exercise involved in the judgment of the court as to what courses of action was objectively reasonable at the time."
  • The First Defendant had described his own actions as being "irresponsible". However, the Court found that this did not mean that he was negligent, rather that "the comment was made with the benefit of hindsight and by someone who was burdened with the guilt of the consequences of the decision he had made."
  • When considering the relevance of the evidence in the criminal trial, Mr Justice Turner held that it should not be disregarded, but it should be noted that:
  1. The burdens of proof differed
  2. The evidence before the civil court was not the same as before the criminal court and jury
  3. The degree of fault for the criminal offence was significantly higher than that of negligence
  4. It was impossible to determine the basis for the jury's verdict as no reasoning is given