Successful defence of high value road traffic claim in QOCS environment
Laws v Williams & Anor
High Court (QB)
18 July 2018
DWF has successfully acted for Aviva and their insured in a claim following a road traffic accident on a slip road where the claimant motorcyclist alleged the defendant had been negligent in slowing or coming to a stop. Liability for the accident was denied notwithstanding that there was no case law dealing with a similar scenario. This is also a case where the QOCS regime applied. Paul Greaves and Keighley Page explain how the case unfolded in Laws v Williams & Anor (2018).
The road traffic accident occurred at the slip road forming the entrance to the A12 close to Coleman's Bridge, in or near Witham, Essex on 23 October 2014.
The claimant was on a motorcycle heading towards the southbound carriageway of the A12 on the slip road. Ahead of him was a car driven by the defendant with the same intention of joining the A12. In front of the defendant was another car which successfully entered the main carriageway of the main road. At the same time a lorry was approaching along the nearside lane of the A12.
The defendant came to a halt on the slip road before she was able to enter the main road, as she did not think it was safe to proceed because of the oncoming traffic, and in particular, the lorry. The claimant had looked to his right to see if it was safe for him to enter the main road, and unlike the defendant, he judged it was safe and assumed that she would proceed on to the A12.
The claimant began to accelerate to bring his speed up to that of the traffic on the main road and turned back to look forwards. He noticed for the first time that the car ahead of him, the defendant's car, had stopped. He braked, but was unable to avoid hitting the rear offside corner of the car, and was propelled into the side of the lorry, sustaining serious and multiple orthopaedic injuries.
Pre-action, the defendant's insurer maintained a firm denial of liability but the claimant nonetheless issued court proceedings, and this was a case in which QOCS provisions were applicable. The case was subsequently listed for a trial on the preliminary issues of negligence and contributory negligence.
The claimant contended that the defendant should not have stopped or slowed to a virtual stop on the slip road for a number of reasons:
- It was unnecessary to do so – she could have entered the A12 in front of the lorry driver;
- She should not have stopped on what was a clearway, when it was safe to proceed;
- The evidence showed that it was safe for her to have proceeded on to the A12 at the time.
The parties obtained reports from accident reconstruction experts. While their opinion evidence was of limited assistance, they were able to assist greatly with the measurements and layout of the slip road and the point at which it tapers. The defendant's expert, Tim Leek, also provided useful video footage of a driver's view of the road going along the carriageway and past the slip road, as well as footage for drivers travelling down the slip road. The video evidence emphasised the defendant's predicament when trying to join the dual carriageway. Mr Leek also highlighted the relevant guidance about junctions on dual carriageways within the Driving Standards Agency Guide to Driving.
With regard to witness evidence, the judge was impressed by the witness evidence of the lorry driver. He maintained that as he approached the slip road, he had turned off his cruise control and reduced his speed because he assumed the defendant would merge in front of him. If she had done so, he would have had to touch his brakes to miss her safely, or change lanes, as he was travelling quite quickly. He was clear that the claimant's motorcycle was behind his lorry when he heard the "thump" of the claimant colliding into his lorry.
Sir Robert Francis QC sitting as a High Court judge, in finding that the defendant was not negligent in her actions leading up to the collision, came to the following succinct conclusion:
"… the actions of the defendant were those of the reasonably competent driver. She correctly judged that to have tried to enter the main road would have caused other traffic to alter its speed or direction. This would have been unsafe and contrary to good practice. A motorist with greater acceleration power available, such as a motorcyclist might have, might well have made a different decision and succeeded in entering the road without causing other traffic to brake. To the extent that the defendant's inability to do this was due to the speed at which she entered the straight section of the slip road, there is no obligation on a motorist to be going at any particular minimum speed round that bend. The dilemma is that the faster a driver enters the straight part of the slip road, the less time there is to make the judgment whether it is safe to proceed. There is also the consideration of having to keep a safe distance from any traffic ahead, a precaution which the claimant failed to take. Therefore even if the defendant was travelling slowly at the beginning of the straight section that was not unreasonable, and is not something which makes her later decision to slow down unreasonable. I consider her driving was in accordance with the good practice set out in the guidance to which I have been referred."
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