20.3.09

Driver making a right turn not liable for fatal accident when fast moving motorcycle collided with his vehicle; Court of Appeal overturns first instance decision.

Mr Lambert was making a right turn into a lane leading to his farm in a pickup, towing a trailer. This junction lies just over 100 metres south of a blind summit in the road. As he turned into the lane a Honda motorcycle ridden by Mr Clayton collided with his vehicle. Mr Lambert claimed that, when he began his turn into the lane the road ahead, as far as the summit, was clear. The Judge at first instance found that Mr Clayton had been travelling at 80mph. The evidence showed no signs that the Honda had braked at all. Mr Lambert claimed he had no option but to proceed, accelerating to try to clear the carriageway. At first instance the Court held Mr Lambert liable subject to 75% contributory negligence.  

Held: The Court of Appeal held that Mr Lambert’s duty was to drive with reasonable prudence and competence. The only criticism the Judge made of Mr Lambert was that, when he saw the Honda come over the crest, he should have chosen to abort the turn rather than press on. The question was whether his decision was negligent at the time he took it, in the light of the position he was in and what he knew or ought to have known at that moment. It is not necessarily negligent, particularly on a country road where large slow loads have to use the highway, for one driver to cause another driver the inconvenience of having to slow down. It could not be said that Mr Lambert’s reaction and decision fell below the standard of reasonable prudence or competence.  

Comment: This case is a useful reminder that the courts should look at whether the decision taken by the defendant was reasonable at the time it was taken, as opposed to with the benefit of hindsight.  

It should also be noted that the Judge at first instance had made precise findings of fact on the basis of fairly limited evidence. The Court of Appeal commented on an obiter basis that there is a danger of injustice if judges make unwarrantedly precise findings of fact. If there are inherent uncertainties about the facts, as there were here, this can be a dangerous approach. For example, a relatively small difference in findings as to the speed of the motorcycle would have had a significant impact on what Mr Lambert would or would not have seen at the time the decision to turn was made.