UK: RTAs - It’s All In The Facts!

Last Updated: 20 July 2012
Article by Grant Conway

This article considers three contrasting decisions relating to road traffic accident claims.

Whilst, for obvious reasons, insurers and practitioners will seek the comfort of established precedent in assessing claims, inevitably many cases turn on their own facts. This is particularly so in claims which arise following road traffic accidents. Three recent decisions highlight the contrasting approach that can be taken in road traffic accident claims.

In Ali v D'Brass (Court of Appeal, November 2011) the claimant appealed against the dismissal of his claim for personal injury. The claimant had been driving on a dual carriageway at about 35-40mph when he braked negligently, when there was no hazard. The defendant had been travelling about half a car's length behind. The claim was initially dismissed on the basis that the accident occurred because the claimant had braked for no good reason. The Court of Appeal, however, considered that, even though the claimant had braked for no good reason, the defendant was at fault for driving too close to the rear of the claimant's vehicle, and applied the well reported decision of Stapley v Jypsom Mines Ltd (1953 House of Lords). Liability was apportioned 40% to the claimant and 60% to the defendant.

In Ringe v Eden Springs (High Court, 2012) the court imposed 80% contributory negligence on a claimant motorcyclist who had been hit by the defendant van driver emerging from a side turning. The accident occurred when the claimant had just overtaken an articulated lorry and the van driver's view of the claimant had been obscured by the presence of the lorry. The motorcyclist was estimated to have been travelling at 60-70mph before the collision. The speed limit was 40mph. The defendant was criticised for having pulled out in circumstances where the size of the approaching articulated lorry was such that he could not see if there was any vehicle overtaking the lorry but the claimant bore considerable responsibility for his driving. Permission to appeal has been granted to the defendant.

A similar factual scenario resulted in a very different outcome in Woodham v JM Turner (Court of Appeal, 2 February 2012). In that case, the court set aside the trial judge's original finding on liability. The facts involved the driver of a coach who was turning out of a T-junction. The coach pulled out to make a right turn manoeuvre past a tractor which had left a gap. The motorcyclist was filtering past the queue of traffic and, inevitably, collided with the front offside corner of the emerging coach. The trial judge found that the coach was at fault in moving forward into the gap when she was not properly able to see whether a road user was overtaking on the offside of the stationary tractor. Unlike the motorcyclist in Ringe, the motorcycle here was not travelling at a grossly excessive speed. The judge found that the motorcylist was travelling at 20mph when a speed of 15mph or less would have given him a greater chance to take evasive action. He considered, however, that the coach driver should bear 70% responsibility.

On appeal by the defendant, the Court of Appeal took the view that the accident would not have happened if the coach driver had waited until she had a clear view to her right. Equally, however, the accident would not have occurred if the motorcyclist had not, contrary to the Highway Code, filtered up the off side of a queue of traffic when this gave rise to a foreseeable risk of injury from an emerging vehicle. As there was no reason to differentiate between the two parties, the court considered a finding of 50/50 appropriate. This apportionment was made notwithstanding that the facts were very similar to the well known case of Powell v Moody (Court of Appeal, 1966) where the claimant motorcyclist was held 80% liable.

Key points for defendants

  • Decisions in claims from motor accidents are often highly fact sensitive. The courts often reach very different liability outcomes on superficially similar claims
  • When considering precedent in motor cases, consider the basis of culpability, rather than the broad facts
  • Where both parties are culpable, and there is no clear reason to attribute more blame to one party than another, a 50/50 outcome is likely

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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