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PERSONAL INJURY – NEGLIGENCE

MOTORCYCLES : REASONABLE CARE : ROAD TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS : LIABILITY FOR COLLISION : DUTY TO DRIVE WITH REASONABLE PRUDENCE AND COMPETENCE : EXCESSIVE SPEED

In the circumstances a motorist’s decision to continue his turn across the opposite carriageway was not negligent at the time he took it in the light of the position he was in and what he knew or ought to have known at that moment.

The appellant (L) appealed against a decision that he was liable for a fatal road traffic accident. The accident occurred on a road in the Yorkshire Dales. The road was a single carriageway road, about 6.5 metres wide, with a broken white line in the centre. It was subject to a speed limit of 60 mph. Although the road was fairly straight, it crossed undulating countryside, running north/south. L lived at a farm, access to which was from a lane which led at an angle off the east side of the road. That junction lay just over 100 metres south of a summit in the road. The accident occurred when L was turning into the lane from the road in his pickup towing a cattle trailer. A motorcyclist came over the summit at high speed and collided with the rear near side of the pickup and the front near side corner of the trailer. The motorcyclist was killed instantly. His widow was the claimant in the ensuing action. The judge held that L was liable, subject to a deduction of 75 per cent for the contributory negligence of the deceased. The judge found that the motorcyclist was travelling at 80 mph. He found that L was negligent in deciding to continue his turn into the lane when he saw the motorcycle coming over the summit; he could and should have aborted the turn when he saw the motorcycle. L submitted that the judge was wrong to hold that he had been negligent: as he had already begun his turn when the motorcyclist came into sight, he faced a split-second decision, whether to stop, swerve back into his own carriageway or go on; none of those options was the perfect solution; each had its potential disadvantages; the natural reaction was to brake hard or accelerate to try to clear the junction; it had been reasonable for L to continue the turn because it would not have been immediately apparent that the motorcyclist was travelling at an excessive speed.

HELD: (1) L’s duty was to drive with reasonable prudence and competence. The judge was not critical of L’s driving in any respect other than that he made the wrong choice when faced with a split-second decision. The only criticism was that, when he saw the motorcycle come over the crest, he should have chosen to abort the turn rather than to press on. The judge did not explain that conclusion and he should have done so. Nor did he discuss the question whether L’s split-second decision was negligent at the time it was taken and not merely the least satisfactory decision in view of the outcome. The judge erred in not expressly considering the reasonableness of L’s decision and in not giving reasons for holding that L’s decision was negligent. Accordingly the appeal court had to review the matter. (2) L’s decision to go on was not negligent at the time he took it in the light of the position he was in and what he knew or ought to have known at that moment. When the motorcycle appeared, he saw it immediately; he was looking out for anything which might appear. But, however carefully he was looking, he would not immediately have been able to tell that the motorcycle was travelling at an abnormally fast speed. In that first split-second, the fact that a vehicle appeared on the crest, at a speed L could not immediately assess, did not create an imperative that L should immediately abort the turn. His duty was to take reasonable care for the oncoming vehicle’s safety and also to give it precedence. But giving precedence did not necessarily entail allowing an oncoming vehicle to proceed unimpeded at a very fast speed. It was not necessarily negligent, particularly on a country road where large slow vehicles had to use the highway, for one driver to cause another driver the inconvenience of having to slow down. In the circumstances negligence could not be inferred from the fact that the collision occurred. L’s reaction and decision did not fall below the standard of reasonable competence. The overwhelming cause of the accident was that the motorcyclist was driving too fast over a blind summit and took no action to brake or swerve. (3) (Obiter) The degree of precision in the judge’s findings was not warranted by the evidence. There was a danger of doing injustice if judges made unwarrantedly precise findings of fact.

Appeal allowed

 

[2009] EWCA Civ 237
RICHARD LAMBERT v JENNY NATASHA CLAYTON (ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF PAUL MICHAEL CLAYTON, DECEASED) (2009)

CA (Civ Div) (Thorpe LJ, Smith LJ, Sullivan LJ) 20/3/2009

Lawtel: 30.03.09