“Proper search and inquiry” requirement for unidentified vehicles considered after hit and run in a fast food drive-thru lane.

In Murray v. Nominal Defendant [2014] QDC 144, Judge Farr of the Brisbane District Court considered the “proper search and inquiry” requirements when lodging a claim against the Nominal Defendant for personal injuries sustained in a collision where the vehicle at fault is unidentified.

Circumstances

The Plaintiff and his wife were seated in a white Nissan Maxima that was stationary in the drive-thru lane of a McDonalds restaurant. While the Plaintiff was looking at the menu board, he heard the sound of an engine revving loudly behind him. Shortly after, the Plaintiff’s vehicle was struck from behind causing it to move forward. The Plaintiff’s wife exited the vehicle and walked to the rear of it. While there was no damage to the Plaintiff’s vehicle (including no damage to the tow ball), the front number plate of the other vehicle had been crushed and was illegible. The Plaintiff’s wife was then allegedly verbally abused by the driver at fault and told to return to the Plaintiff’s vehicle.

The Plaintiff advised a McDonalds employee that he needed assistance as he had been involved in a collision. He was told to complete his order and park a short distance away from the drive-thru lane where the manager would speak with him.

While parked, the Plaintiff and his wife saw the vehicle at fault leaving. The Plaintiff’s wife exited the vehicle and verbally abused the occupants of the vehicle at fault. The vehicle at fault reversed back towards the Plaintiff and pulled up beside it. Words were exchanged before the vehicle at fault drove forward, executed a u-turn and drive off.

“Proper” versus “due”

To bring a claim against the Nominal Defendant, the Plaintiff is required to establish that he or she has first undertaken proper search and inquiry to identify the unidentified vehicle pursuant to s 31(2) Motor Accident Insurance Act 1994. This differs from the previous requirement for “due search and inquiry” required by the Motor Vehicles Insurance Act 1936 (Qld).

His Honour opined that “proper” should be given its plain and ordinary meaning and referred to the definition given in the Macquarie Dictionary and the synonyms listed in the Macquarie Concise Thesaurus.

His Honour held that the word “proper” on its every day and ordinary meaning connoted something more strict than “due”, and the standard required by the Motor Accident Insurance Act 1994 (Qld) is higher than that required by the preceding Act.

While His Honour noted that the actions that may be required to discharge the duty will depend on the individual facts and circumstances of each matter, claimants are not required to take actions that are unlikely to produce results.

Assuming there will be CCTV footage is not enough

In this matter, it was held the Plaintiff failed to establish that he had conducted proper search and inquiry for the following reasons:

  • the Plaintiff appreciated the necessity to obtain the registration number of the unidentified vehicle;
  • the Plaintiff did not exit his vehicle to check the registration plate of the identified vehicle;
  • the Plaintiff had ample opportunity to see the rear number plate in the confrontational activity that followed the collision;
  • the Plaintiff did not ask the restaurant’s employees at the drive-thru windows to note the registration of the vehicle at fault;
  • the Plaintiff could have observed the registration number and entered the restaurant to ask for a pen to record it;
  • the assumption that the restaurant would have CCTV cameras that would capture the registration number was not an excuse for failing to record the registration number because the Plaintiff did not know:-
  1. whether the system (if any) was functioning;
  2. whether it actually recorded activity;
  3. how long the recordings (if any) were kept; or
  4. whether the technology was sufficient to record the registration details.

Conclusion

This case confirms that while it is not necessary to attempt searches that will obviously be futile, more than cursory efforts are required to discharge the requirement for proper search and inquiry.

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