Road Traffic Accidents

The courts have tended to look for a very high standard of care, amounting almost to strict liability, in persons driving a motor vehicle on the highway. There are obvious policy reasons for this: third party insurance is almost universal, and anyone injured through the negligence of an uninsured driver can claim compensation from the Motor Insurers' Bureau. Any judgement against a motorist is thus borne by those who can afford it. Whether such an approach is "fair" is another question altogether, and depends on what is seen as the purpose of the law of negligence.

Nettleship v Weston [1971] 3 All ER 581, CA

A learner driver D went out for her first lesson, supervised by a friend P. D crashed the car into a lamppost, and P was injured. P's claim for damages was upheld by the Court of Appeal, subject to a deduction for contributory negligence. Even learner drivers, said the Court, are to be judged against the standard of the reasonably competent driver. The fact that a particular driver is inexperienced and incompetent does not excuse his falling short of this standard.

The decision may seem harsh, but it can be justified both philosophically and practically. Philosophically, although it may be unfair to penalise a driver who was doing her best, it would be even more unfair if an injured victim were made to go without compensation because the driver who caused his injuries was incompetent. The practical justification was offered quite openly by Lord Denning MR: the injured person can recover damages from an insurer only if the driver is liable in law. So the judges must see to it that the is liable unless he can prove care and skill of a high standard. In this branch of the law, he went on, we are moving away from the concept "No liability without fault" to another, "On whom should the risk fall?". Morally the learner driver is not at fault, but legally she is liable because she is insured and the risk should therefore fall on her.

Roberts v Ramsbottom [1980] 1 All ER 7, Neill J

D suffered a partial stroke while driving, and drove on with impaired consciousness to collide with two parked vehicles. The judge said that since he retained some limited control he was still liable; only total unconsciousness or total lack of control (as in an epileptic fit) would excuse him. Alternatively, said the judge, D knew he had been taken ill and was therefore negligent in not stopping, even if he did not fully realise he was no longer fit to drive.

Mansfield v Weetabix [1998] 1 WLR 1263, CA

A lorry-driver employed by DD was unaware of a medical condition and gradually lost full consciousness during a 40-mile journey. Allowing DD's appeal against a finding of negligence, Leggatt LJ said there is no reason in principle why a driver who suffers a gradual disability should not escape liability just as a driver whose disability is sudden, so long as he is unaware of it. The Court of Appeal doubted the judge's dictum in Roberts v Ramsbottom (while accepting the decision in that case on its facts), and said the criminal defence of sane automatism is irrelevant to civil liability.

Powell v Phillips [1972] 3 All ER 864, CA

A pedestrian in dark clothing was walking at night along the left-hand side of the road (not on the pavement, which was covered in snow), and was struck by a car. The court acknowledged that the pedestrian was in breach of the Highway Code in a number of respects, but said that did not necessarily show that he had been negligent. It is clear, said the judge, that a breach ... creates no presumption of negligence calling for an explanation ... but is just one of the circumstances on which one party may rely in establishing the negligence of the other ... considered with all other circumstances. [See also Snelling v Whitehead (1975) and Carter v Sheath (1989), here.]

Webb v Darbon (2000) unreported

A 12-year-old boy ran from behind a van into the path of D's car, and suffered serious head injuries. Although D was driving within the 30 mph speed limit, his insurers accepted that he was liable for C's injuries and paid damages agreed at £3½ million. (Times news report, 28/11/00.) 

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