This is a Queensland Court of Appeal decision involving a plaintiff who was injured when a person he was arguing with in the pub car park ran over his legs with a car.
On 21 June 2006, Terence Miles was at the Robina Tavern with two friends attending a birthday party. Just before midnight, Mr Miles and his friends were walking through the car park when they were involved in an altercation with Brock Williams who was driving a motor vehicle through the car park. Mr Williams was accompanied by his girlfriend, Shari, and two friends. Mr Miles (or one of his friends) threw a bottle at Mr Williams’ car and also spat through the car window. Mr Miles then stood in front of the vehicle and placed his hands on the bonnet, refusing to move. Mr Williams’ response to this was to accelerate forward and drive over Miles’ legs, fracturing his left leg and right ankle.
The Decision at Trial
The trial judge found that Mr Williams could have reversed the vehicle or taken another path. Williams argued that he was concerned for his own safety. The trial judge found that Mr Williams was protected in his vehicle, and it was common knowledge that striking a person with a vehicle could cause significant injury. Mr Williams was therefore held to have breached his duty of care to Mr Miles. Mr Williams argued at trial that Mr Miles contributed to his injuries because he was intoxicated and refused to move away from the front of the vehicle. The trial judge rejected this argument and ordered Mr Williams (by his insurer AAI Ltd) to pay $750,000 in damages. Mr Williams and AAI Ltd appealed.
The Decision on Appeal
On appeal, Mr Williams argued that the trial judge erred with respect to the issue of contributory negligence and had wrongly rejected Shari’s evidence that Mr Miles refused to move away from the front of the vehicle. The trial judge considered that Shari was “hysterical” by this time and her evidence could not be relied upon. Mr Williams also argued that a reasonable person in Mr Miles’ position would not have refused to move and that the trial judge erred in finding that Miles was not affected by alcohol.
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal with costs to be paid by Mr Williams.
The appeal was ultimately restricted to the trial judge’s findings on contributory negligence. With respect to breach the trial judge found that, even though Mr Miles was standing in front of Mr Williams’ vehicle, there were alternate paths available to Mr Williams which meant that it was not necessary for him to accelerate forward and run over Mr Miles. These findings in relation to breach were in themselves sufficient to support the conclusion that there was no contributory negligence by Mr Miles.
As to the evidence of Shari, the Court of Appeal held that it was open to the trial judge to question her reliability because she was scared, upset and panicked at the time of the incident.
The Court of Appeal also found that the trial judge’s decision regarding Miles’ lack of intoxication was consistent with evidence regarding his low blood alcohol reading.
If there was ever a case where one might think a court could find contributory negligence on the part of a plaintiff injured in a motor vehicle incident, this case would be it. However, the court did not find Mr Miles at fault. This decision reinforces how high the bar is to clear to establish contributory negligence in motor vehicle claims.
The Court of Appeal said there was insufficient evidence to show that Mr Miles was affected by the alcohol he consumed that evening. Again we might think that evidence such as spitting, hurling abuse and picking a fight with a fellow in the car park might be evidence of intoxication. Not so said the trial judge and Court of Appeal. These findings were based on evidence from Mr Miles as to the number of drinks he had prior to the incident and expert evidence on the rate at which Mr Miles metabolised the alcohol in those drinks.
If Mr Miles was affected by alcohol then further evidence was necessary to show this, such as ambulance and hospital records or evidence from bar staff or friends who were drinking with him. Courts will not make an automatic reduction in damages based on some evidence to suggest that a plaintiff was intoxicated at the time of being injured. Rather, there needs to be good evidence that the plaintiff was intoxicated and that the intoxication contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries.