Lambert v Clayton Accident Locus

On the morning of the 3rd May 2004, a motorcyclist, Clayton, was fatally injured in a collision involving a Vauxhall pickup truck towing a cattle trailer driven by Lambert. The widow of the motorcyclist subsequently raised an action for damages.

Accident circumstances

The motorcyclist was travelling on Greenhow Hill Road; a single carriageway road, subject to the national speed limit of 60mph. He was exceeding the speed limit travelling in a southerly direction on approach to a blind summit. Just over the crest of that summit he was confronted with the Vauxhall pickup with trailer turning across his lane to enter Slade House Farm. The motorcyclist collided with the near side of the vehicle causing his fuel task to burst into flames, killing him instantly.

Liability

The legal representatives for the motorcyclist’s widow alleged the driver had negligently driven across the path of the oncoming motorcyclist when he was there to be seen. By contrast, the driver alleged that the road ahead, as far as the summit was concerned, was clear when he began his turn, and that the motorcyclist had suddenly appeared at speed. He claimed that he had no choice other than to proceed.

There were no independent eyewitnesses to the collision, although witnesses had observed the motorcyclist riding at excessive speeds just a few minutes before the collision. The Judge inferred that the motorcyclist had been riding at 80mph and found that he had not braked between coming over the crest of the hill and the moment of the collision. This was a distance of 110 meters. Travelling at 80mph, 3.08 seconds would have elapsed after he came over the crest before the collision. Had he been travelling at 60mph, the time would have been about 4 seconds.

However, the Judge also found the driver to have been negligent for continuing his turn into the farm road after observing the motorcyclist on approach. Instead, he stated that the driver should have abandoned his turn at the point he first saw the motorcyclist. The Judgement was 75/25 in favour of the driver, thus awarding the widow 25% of the full value of the claim due to the motorcyclist being 75% responsible for the collision. This decision was appealed.

The Appeal

The driver’s legal representatives argued that the driver had already begun his turn into the junction when he first saw the motorcyclist, leaving him with a split-second decision as to whether to stop, swerve or continue with the manoeuvre. None of these options came without potential disadvantages.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that it would have been better to abandon the turn. However, it was argued that he should not be judged with hindsight; he should instead be judged according to what a reasonably careful and competent driver would have done in those circumstances.

The pickup driver had already started his turn after considering it safe to do so. He accelerated with a right-hand lock to turn into the junction. To that extent, he had committed to the turn. He knew that the distance between his vehicle and the crest of the summit was limited and that it was not unusual for vehicles to proceed over the summit at speed.

However, at the point where the motorcyclist first came into sight, it was considered unreasonable for the driver to have known that the motorcycle would have been travelling at an abnormally fast speed. His decision had therefore been largely instinctive.

It was held by the Appeal Judge that the driver’s decision had not fallen below the standard of reasonableness and therefore negligence could not be implied. The Appeal Judge held that the Courts must take care not to hold a motorist liable in negligence just because a collision might have been avoided if a different decision had been taken.

Within the final judgment, the Appeal Judge stated:-

‘The overwhelming cause of the accident was that the motorcyclist had been riding at an excessive and dangerous speed, particularly coming over a blind summit. Moreover, he had taken no evasive action when he saw, or should have seen, the car and trailer.’

The Appeal was allowed, and it was held that the driver was not at fault.

The full decision can be found here.

Top Tip from MLS Senior Legal Investigator, Lee Fisher: When riding on country roads and approaching blind bends or crests, slow down and think about what may be on the road ahead. Expect the unexpected. You should always be able to stop safely in the distance you can see to be clear on your own side of the road.

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