Is the evidence of an expert in cycling safety reasonably required in a personal injury claim arising out of an accident which the claimant alleges was caused by the highway authority’s breach of duty (in respect of maintenance, layout etc)? At a Case Management conference in the case of Allen v Cornwall Council  EWHC 1461 the District Judge gave the claimant permission to rely on such evidence to deal with allegations of contributory negligence made by the defendant. He refused to grant the defendant permission to rely on its own evidence.
In the case of Liddell v Middleton (7th July 1995, Unreported), the Court of Appeal gave guidance as to the admissibility of expert evidence in road traffic claims. Stuart-Smith L.J. said that in such cases the function of the expert is to furnish the judge with the necessary scientific criteria and assistance based upon his special skill and experience not possessed by ordinary laymen to enable the judge to interpret the factual evidence of the marks on the road, the damage, or whatever it may be. What he is not entitled to do is reach conclusions on facts or give his opinion on whether there was a breach of duty. In Liddell the Court of Appeal found the ‘expert’ had overstepped the mark and given evidence which was entirely irrelevant and inadmissible.
The defendant in Allen appealed the District Judge’s order and the case was heard by Green J. He would not interfere with what was a case management decision of the district judge. Green J found that the district judge was addressing a threshold issue as to whether the evidence should be admitted for the purpose of case management but, he had made it clear it was without prejudice to any more mature and considered view which a trial judge might take. He had not given the defendant permission to have its own report because it might see the expert evidence of the claimant and decide that it wanted to abandon allegations of contributory negligence altogether.
Green J held that the district judge had not seen the expert’s report at the time he made his decision and therefore he was not in a position to assess its content; he took account of the fact his decision would not bind the trial judge. Green J thought that the facts of the case were somewhat unusual (as it was not a case of a collision with a pedestrian or another vehicle but one involving the condition and layout of the highway). He did not rule on the admissibility of the evidence but thought the judge had not acted outside the generous ambit afforded to a judge exercising his case management powers.
Green J acknowledged the ‘practical force’ of the defendant’s complaint that the judge should have required the report to be prepared and produced before granting permission. Indeed the defendant’s suggestion that this would have been the appropriate course was commended as ‘sensible’. It is notably the course commended by the Court of Appeal in Casey v Cartwright in the context of low velocity road traffic accident litigation. But Green J did not think the judge had erred in not adopting this approach.
This case raises an interesting question as to when exactly the threshold is reached for the granting of permission for expert evidence at the case management stage: when is expert evidence ‘reasonably required’ (CPR 35.1)? In Casey the question was whether, once the judge had seen the expert evidence, the issue itself had a ‘real prospect of success’. Liddell v Middleton and the decision in Allen tend to suggest that at the case management stage the question is no more than whether it is arguable that the evidence is admissible - the final decision rests with the trial judge.
The questions the expert was to examine included where a cyclist should be positioned on a carriageway and whether he was cycling too fast or should have dismounted where visibility was poor. Do such questions require expert evidence? If so, why not in cases involving motorcycling, lorry driving and other modes of transport which may be outside the experience of a trial judge? It will be interesting to see what the trial judge decides.
In the meantime it is striking that, at the appeal, Green J gave the defendant permission to rely on its own expert evidence before it had seen the evidence of the claimant. Draw what conclusions you will…