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DWF Case Update: Highways

Laws v Durham County Council
24.9.15
Newcastle upon Tyne County Court

John Thomson reports on the successful defence of a highways tripping claim in which the Claimant challenged the Council’s annual inspection regime.

Facts

This was a highway tripping claim in which the Claimant alleged she tripped and fell due to a pothole in the lane at the back of North Gate, Anfield Plain as she was walking to a school to collect her daughter.

The main element of the Claimant’s case at trial was to challenge the Defendant’s 12 monthly inspection regime.

The Claimant’s evidence was that the school was busy, that the back lane was the main access to the school and that no one used the footpath on one side of the lane but instead everyone walked on the road. It was submitted that the Court should therefore apply the footpath standards to the accident locus not the carriageway standards.

The Claimant also called a witness who was a local resident who said she had complained regularly about the condition of the back lane to her local councillor and also by telephone. The witness also confirmed that it was used by parents and children attending the school.   It transpired in cross examination the witness had last attended a meeting with the local councillor approximately three years before the accident.

Claimant’s counsel put great emphasis on the complaints when submitting the road was incorrectly classified and that reports by local residents ought to play a significant role in the Council’s consideration of its highway maintenance policy.  

The Claimant did not raise any issue as regards the defect being missed at the pre-accident inspection which was carried out approximately six months before the accident date. 

It was the Defendant’s case that annual inspections were appropriate.  Evidence was provided as to the number of pupils at the school, approximately 70 – 80 at the time of the accident and that not all of the pupils would use the back lane to get to/from school. Details of the reports made by the claimant’s witness were obtained which showed that only one of her reports was recorded pre-accident and that related to drainage issues not potholes.  Evidence was also given as to the procedure used by the Council when assessing and changing its policy, which was done on an annual basis.

Findings

District Judge Searl dismissed the Claimant’s claim, accepting the Council had a section 58 defence:

  • The Claimant’s submission that the accident location should be inspected to the footway standard was rejected;

  • It was not accepted that the area was busy on the basis that the Claimant’s own evidence was that no one was in the back lane at the time of her fall, which was just around the end of the school day.

  • On the policy point, the suggestion that local residents’ views should form part of the classification process over the experience of the Defendant’s highways staff, was rejected.

  • The annual policy assessment was appropriate.

Comment

This was a strange case as the vast majority of the written evidence prior to trial related to whether the defect was actionable or not, not the inspection policy. When it came to trial, the case was actually presented from a different angle.  However, the Defendant was well prepared with sufficient evidence available to the Court to deal with the policy issues.

This case reminds defendants and their legal advisers to be ready for any of the issues pleaded in the Particulars of Claim then being used as the main thrust of a claim at trial.

DWF acted for the successful Defendant.

Contact

For further information please contact John Thompson on +44 (0)191 233 9754 or at john.thompson@dwf.co.uk

By John Thompson

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.

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