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Girbash v Mail Line Auto Engineering Limited, Court of Appeal, 24 May 2004

2 June 2004
The issues

Road Traffic – Whether Garage That Had Inspected And Repaired Vehicle Before Accident Was Responsible For Later Accident – Appeals

The facts

The Claimant had been driving a Ford Transit van on the A303 at Berwick Down in Wiltshire on 30th April 1998 when she lost control of it. It collided with a Volvo car coming in the opposite direction. She suffered serious head injuries and her boyfriend who was a passenger in the van was killed. The Claimant was so seriously injured that she was unable to give evidence or to take part in the Trial.

The Claimant’s case was that the collision was caused by the defective condition of the rear offside brakes of the van. She alleged that she had brought the van in for servicing on 28th April 1998 and that it was the garage’s fault in effect that the accident had occurred. The Trial was limited to liability and in particular two issues: –

1. Whether the Claimant brought the van to Main Lines Garage for inspection and repair not long before the accident and
2. Whether the condition of the off side brakes caused or materially contributed to the accident.

The matter was heard by the Deputy High Court Judge who answered both questions in favour of the Claimant. The Defendant appealed.

The decision

1. Did the Claimant bring the van in for servicing on 28th April 1998?

The Judge had had no direct evidence which would enable him to answer this question and it all depended therefore upon what inferences it was appropriate for him to draw from the evidence before him. It had been a difficult case for the Judge to decide. However, the Judge was entitled to conclude that the Claimant took the van to the Defendant and subsequently collected it on the basis of his inferences.

Although there had been cases in which appellant Courts had reversed decisions of Trial Judges in favour of Claimants on the ground that the Judge should have held that they had not proved their case, those cases would be few and far between. In this case the Judge’s decision on this point would not be reversed given that he was in a better position than the Court of Appeal to assess the evidence including in particular oral evidence.

2. Did the defective brakes cause or contribute to the accident?

The Appeal Court would not interfere with the conclusions reached by the Judge. The Court was not persuaded that the Judge was not entitled to reach his conclusions. At the very least he was entitled to hold that the affect of the braking made a material contribution to the loss of control and thus to the accident.

Appeal dismissed.

Comments

Lord Justice Mance dissented strongly on the basis that the only satisfactory conclusion that could be reached on the available evidence in this case was that the true position was in doubt on a key issue of fact and that therefore the claim failed. This was a rare situation and few cases would fall within this category of case but nonetheless the law recognised such cases as had been shown in Rhesa Shipping Co SA v Edmunds (The Popi M) a decision of the House of Lords in 1985. Similar cases had been Morris v London Iron & Steel Company Limited (1998) and Ashraf v Akram (1999) – where Sedley LJ talked of the resolution of the issue of who had been speaking the truth in that case as being “blocked by an intractable evidential tangle”. The Judge had committed the error identified in the Popi M of believing it necessary to decide between one side’s case and the other, rather than asking whether the Claimant had made out her case on the balance of probabilities.

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