Highways: will the pledge of more funding 'fill' the pothole gap?
Months of severe weather has led to deterioration in the condition of a large number of roads. Combine this with Council warnings of a £10.5 billion 'backlog' of road repairs and it should come as no surprise that a recent survey by The Sunday Telegraph revealed a huge rise in the number of pothole claims last year.
What will come as a surprise however is that the same survey revealed a decrease in the sums paid out with the average driver receiving just a sixth of the sum given to owners of cars damaged by potholes in 2012.
The Government has announced a further £140 million in funding to local authorities to help carry out the necessary repairs following one of our wettest winters. Councils have been warning for a while that they have been denied the means to do little more than a patch up job on deteriorating roads. The money was simply not being provided for proper resurfacing works to be carried out. This 'false economy' leads to the vicious cycle of a limited patch up job not lasting, leading to a further incident and a claim and another patch up job becoming necessary.
Around 75% of local authorities surveyed by The Sunday Telegraph responded to the survey. It showed that road users made 39,249 claims for compensation to councils in 2013 for either injuries or damage caused to vehicles, an increase from 25,977 in 2012. In 2011, the average award was £2,264, dropping to £1,565 in 2012. This figure dropped again in 2013 to £375, on average. Compare this with the average repair costs of each pothole of £50. The million pound question however, is how, despite an increase in claims, the average award has decreased?
It has been suggested that the increase in the number of claims has been largely made up of minor damage claims which have been capable of being dealt with quickly and cheaply. The survey further revealed only about a fifth of all claims resulted in compensation. This is suggestive that local authorities are better at defending such claims and their systems of inspection and maintenance have improved. The statistics could also be explained by the suggestion that society is in general more litigious and people are more likely to seek compensation. Blackpool Council suggested they believed the increase in the number of claims was as a result of 'claims farmers' knocking door to door in deprived areas asking people if they wish to claim.
It should not be forgotten that potholes, and other carriageway defects, can also cause large loss and catastrophic injury claims as well as the relatively minor monetary payouts. In (1)AC (2)DC (3)TR v Devon County Council , the claimant driver (TR) brought a claim against the defendant local authority for breach of its duty to maintain the highway following personal injury sustained in a road traffic accident. TR had been driving along a rural road. When he overtook another vehicle he drove into the offside lane. He entered a potholed area and lost control of his vehicle. As a result, two individuals suffered serious personal injury. Passenger AC was rendered a tetraplegic and suffered a traumatic amputation of an arm. TR admitted liability, but brought a claim against the local authority for breach of duty under the Highways Act 1980 s.41. The claim against the local authority succeeded, subject to an appeal where TR was found to be 50% contributory negligent. Both passengers' claims were settled at £4,250,000 in lump sums with periodical payments of £250,000 to AC for life.
In the recent decision of Curtis v Hertfordshire County Council  a cyclist was awarded £70,000 after his bicycle struck a pothole and he was left with a permanent injury which would result in a continued disadvantage on the labour market.
It was inevitable the bad weather would create more problems for road users. With roads already in a poor state of repair the severe rain and cold have lead to more potholes and problems. The problem of not enough funding for road repairs is an age old complaint for local authorities. The pledge of additional funding from the government is a welcome one however, it is still not enough to plug the substantial gap between the funding needed for proper resurfacing works to be completed.
Councils paid out a total of £3.6million to drivers last year compared to £8 million in 2012 and £15 million in 2011. Bad weather aside it is imperative the additional funding from the Government is put to good use, in a bid to continue the trend of decreasing payouts and breaking the vicious cycle of insufficient repairs leading to further claims. Continuing to improve inspection and maintenance regimes should also assist, as well obtaining sound legal advice when needed.
For further information please contact Reena Buggal, Senior Solicitor, on 020 7645 9613.
This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.