February 4, 2019

Road traffic: High Court provides guidance on liability apportionment for collision at a junction

The High Court recently provided helpful guidance on the issue of liability where a vehicle exiting a minor road had collided with a motorcycle which was exceeding the speed limit on the major road approaching the junction.

Background

The First Defendant had pulled out from a minor road into a major road – which was a one-way street. The Defendant had edged out to the extent that his field of vision was 40 metres up the road to his right. The Claimant was riding his motorcycle on the major road, and hit the front offside wing of the First Defendant's car during the manoeuvre out onto the major road. He was thrown from his motorcycle rendering him paraplegic. Mr Hernandez made a claim against the defendant. The defendant counterclaimed in respect of psychiatric injury.

The Court held that the preliminary issue of liability needed to be addressed.

The Claimant submitted that the Defendant had pulled out onto Victoria Park Road without having a clear view or looking properly.

The Defendant alleged that the Claimant had ridden his motorcycle at approximately 50mph in a 30mph speed limit zone, and that he could not reasonably have seen the Claimant or avoided the collision. Counsel for the Defendant submitted that "he was under no duty to guard against reckless driving".

The evidence of an independent witness was found to be unreliable and the question of liability turned on expert analysis of CCTV footage.

The main issue to establish was what speed the Claimant was travelling at when the accident occurred. The Defendant's expert submitted the CCTV footage showed the Claimant driving at around 49 mph. The Claimant's expert, argued the CCTV footage was corrupted and unreliable as the pattern of images was inconsistent.

Master Davison preferred the Defendant's expert evidence, finding that the Claimant was travelling at "at least 45mph and probably nearer 50mph".  

Master Davison considered the relevant provisions of the Highway Code, and cited the Court of Appeal case Heaton v Herzog [2008] EWCA Civ 1636, that a driver emerging onto a major road from a minor road has a duty "to take extreme care before doing so and when doing so". 

Master Davison also cited Jones v Lawton [2013] EWHC 4109 (QB) in which Burnett J observed that every case is different and that "differences in the apportionment of responsibility can turn on quite narrow distinctions in the circumstances of an accident". In the same case he also said that "there is certainly authority for the proposition that if a driver emerges from a side road on to a major road exercising all reasonable care, then, notwithstanding that a collision has occurred, the driver will not be liable".

Outcome

In reaching his conclusion, Master Davidson found "the accident was the product of fault on both sides, the Claimant's in going too fast and the Defendant's in not getting a proper view down Victoria Park Road before pulling out". 

Mr Acar had not taken "all reasonable care" as the evidence indicated that "he was conscious that he had not managed to see as far up the road as he would have liked before pulling out".The Claimant had "exceeded the speed limit, admittedly by a big margin."

When determining the apportionment of liability, Master Davidson placed a "little bit more blame on the Claimant than the Defendant." Nevertheless, he held that the Claimant was a vulnerable road user, being a motorcyclist, this "tilt[ed] the balance" back in favour of the Claimant.

The Court gave judgment for 60% of the Claimant's claim with damages to be assessed, and 40% of the Defendant's counterclaim with damages to be assessed, subject to medical causation being established.

What can we learn?

  • Whilst the decision is inevitably fact specific, this judgment will provide helpful guidance to practitioners when balancing the respective duties of different categories of road users.
  • It was not sufficient for the defendant to edge out to the extent that he could only see approximately 40 metres up the road before moving off. The Court found the Defendant edging to this distance still meant he "had a blind spot to his immediate right". He should have continued to edge out as this would have given him a better view of the road and allowed him to stop immediately upon becoming aware of the motorcycle.
  • In respect of the Claimant's conduct, the speed at which the Claimant was travelling was not found to be "reckless" and could not be characterised as the exclusive cause of the collision. The Defendant must have been aware that other road users may exceed the speed limit.
  • The Claimant's conduct was compared to that in the case of Jessop v Nixon, where the driver on the major road was driving at an excessive speed, had been tailgating another vehicle, and was overtaking on the wrong side of the road. This was the kind of reckless driving which would have absolved the Defendant of any liability.