Starks v Chief Constable of Hertfordshire [09.07.13]

Court of Appeal reapportions liability in claim involving accident on mini-roundabout; guidance given on approach to be taken to these claims.

Implications

The Court of Appeal stated that it had less compunction in differing from the view of the trial Judge as:

"She did not give any reasons for her apportionment: she simply referred to the relevant legal principles and announced her conclusion".

A key principle is that established by paragraph 185 of the Highway Code, that vehicles approaching roundabouts should give priority to traffic approaching from the right. Clearly this is not the be all and end all of liability investigations, but merely a starting point.

In pleading defences to claims involving mini-roundabouts, paragraph 184 of the Highway Code should also be considered. This requires drivers approaching roundabouts to take notice and act on all the information available to them.

This rather broad requirement affords a great deal of scope for liability arguments. The first port of call should always be to obtain a detailed version of events from the driver and any other witnesses. If justified, expert evidence can also be obtained as to the accident locus, position of and damage to vehicles, speed of travel and any other relevant factors. However, it is necessary to be mindful of the guidance in Stewart v Glaze [2009] and ensure that the focus remains on the primary factual evidence.

This decision means that it should be possible to take a robust stance when faced with claimants’ solicitors suggesting that entering the path of another vehicle is a clear and total determination of liability.

Background

On 27 December 2007 there was a collision between a car being driven by Mr Starks and a police car being driven by PC Richardson. Both were injured.

The accident took place at the junction between two roads. Verity Way is the more major of the two roads and subject to a 40 mph limit. Vardon Road, which is subject to a 30 mph limit, joins Verity Way at a T-junction. The junction is configured as a mini-roundabout.

Mr Starks was approaching the junction along Vardon Road, intending to turn right. He was deemed to have been travelling at 15 mph. PC Richardson was approaching the junction along Verity Way, intending to proceed straight on. She was deemed to have been travelling at 30 mph and was approaching the junction from Mr Starks’ right.

Mr Starks reached the roundabout first, entered it and began his right turn, taking a line which involved passing over the top part of the roundel. PC Richardson entered the roundabout very shortly after him. She did not moderate her speed or her course in any way and was taking a line that involved passing directly over the middle of the roundel. She struck Mr Starks’ car in the centre of the junction.

At first instance, Her Honour Judge Plumstead apportioned liability at 55/45 in favour of PC Richardson.

Decision

The Court of Appeal held that liability should be apportioned at 65/35 in favour of Mr Starks:

  • In a case where two drivers are approaching a mini-roundabout, one being closer but the other travelling faster, the rules about priority may not give a black-and-white answer. Which ought to accommodate the other will involve an exercise of judgement on the part of each driver, with each being prepared to stop at the give way line if there is room for doubt about the other’s intentions.
  • PC Richardson simply ignored the fact that the junction was a mini-roundabout. That was in plain breach of paragraph 188 of the Highway Code, which states that vehicles "must pass round the central markings" and applies to all types of roundabout. The fact that this rule may often be broken is neither here nor there. Also, she should not have been travelling at more than 20 mph or so and should have seen Mr Starks’ vehicle, anticipating the possibility of his entering the junction.
  • Mr Starks should have seen PC Richardson’s car approaching and appreciated that by reason of its speed and proximity, it was not safe to enter the mini-roundabout. However, he was entitled to expect that any vehicle approaching the junction at such a speed as that of PC Richardson would slow down in order to navigate the roundel in the proper way.
  • Both drivers were seriously at fault, but in PC Richardson’s case there was also the fact that she wholly ignored the existence of the mini-roundabout. This was a serious additional feature which made her the more culpable.