How Do The Courts View Negligence When Apportioning Blame For Road Traffic Accidents?

Road traffic accidents are unfortunately all too common.

Harold Stock & Co’s solicitors know this only too well as we had to deal with our fair share of cases. We’ve successfully represented a number of clients and have been able to secure compensation payments for those who were injured because of someone else’s negligence.

But the question we’re often asked by potential clients is how do the courts determine responsibility for accidents?

In other words, how do judges decide who’s been negligent, and how do they establish whether there has been any evidence presented to show that one party or other had been negligent and was therefore responsible for causing the accident? Well, the best way to demonstrate this is by looking at a relatively- recent Court of Appeal judgement in the case of Burton v Evitt.

Burton v Evitt

The defendant, the driver of a car, had been waiting in the centre of a busy road en route to the motorway. He was waiting to turn right into the car park of a public house to pick up a passenger. The road was busier than normal because there was a football match being played in the area. Directly behind the car was a line of further cars, headed by a large 4 x 4 vehicle. This meant that the defendant’s rear view was obstructed. As he started to inch his way across the road, he collided with a motorcycle which was being driven at speed past the line of stationary traffic. The motorcycle collided with the turning car, and the rider was seriously injured.

The judge in the original case held that negligence had been demonstrated by both parties. However, he held that the claimant had been two-thirds responsible for the accident and the defendant one-third. The defendant appealed against the finding of negligence and the apportionment of liability on the following grounds:

  • He had looked out for any motorcycles, by twice checking his wing mirrors;
  • The judge had erred in interpreting ‘blind spot’ as used in the Highway Code to mean a triangle of invisibility when the term, as normally understood, meant an area that could not be seen using the vehicle’s mirrors and that had to be checked in some other way;
  • There had been no reason to inch out to cater for the possibility that there might have been a motorcycle while he had been travelling at a crawling speed; and
  • On the issue of causation, given the speed with which the claimant had been travelling, by the time the defendant would have seen the claimant, the accident would have occurred as the road was damp and there would have been insufficient time to brake and avoid a collision.

The Court of Appeal Civil Division allowed the appeal in part. The appeal against the finding of negligence was dismissed, on the following grounds:

  • The court accepted that, in the present case, up until the point when he had stopped the car, the defendant had acted with considerable care. However it was clear that then he could not have seen what might have been coming up on the offside.
  • No technical interpretation was to be given to the expression ‘blind spot’. It meant an area which could not be seen. If a person could not see that area, then other measures should be taken.
  • It was clear that the size of the 4×4 and its position meant that there had been an area which the defendant could not have seen. He should have, therefore, inched out. The defendant had failed to exercise due care.

In terms of the apportionment of liability, the court stated:

  • The claimant was negligent to a high order having driven at high speed, and there was no doubt that it had substantially contributed to the accident.
  • The defendant had performed what would ordinarily be expected of someone doing what he had been doing. He had driven with care as regards the person pulling out of the car park. However, he had been at fault in the limited respect as already held.
  • The judge’s apportionment of negligence would be set aside and replaced with an apportionment of 80% to the claimant and 20% to the defendant.

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