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Whittle v Bennett, Court of Appeal, 1 November 2006

24 November 2006
The issues

Road traffic accident – causation – apportionment – contributory negligence.

The facts

On 30th April 2002 the Claimant, Mr Whittle, was driving a Ford Mondeo on the A25 Dorking to Reigate. Mr Whittle performed a u-turn from the nearside of the carriageway, notwithstanding the approach of two Vauxhall Nova motorcars, the second of which was driven by Mr Bennett, the Defendant. The first Nova passed the Mondeo. The second Nova, driven by Mr Bennett, struck the Mondeo at about mid-point on its offside, injuring Mr Whittle catastrophically. The Claimant sued Mr Bennett alleging that he was driving too fast and too close to the first Nova. The matter came before the Judge who dismissed the claim on the basis that the cause of the accident was not the driving of Mr Bennett, but that if that was wrong then Mr Whittle’s contributory negeligence would have been assessed at 80%. The Claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The Claimant argued on appeal that the Judge below had wrongly found that the duty to maintain a safe distance from the car in front was a duty to avoid a collision in the event that the front car made an emergency stop and was wrong to conclude that it was not a duty owed to Mr Whittle or that a breach of that duty was not a cause of the accident. The Defendant relied on the decision of the Court of Appeal in Sam v Atkins and in particular the finding that negligence that might have caused injury to another Claimant did not necessarily justify a finding of negligence in breach of duty to the Claimant in that case.

The decision

The duty of care of a driver in circumstances such as these was sufficiently wide to cover all those who might reasonably be affected by the fact of his driving too close to the vehicle in front. That however did not help the Claimant. The presence of the first Nova was legally irrelevant. The first Nova did not collide with the Mondeo because it was able to drive around it as the Claimant began his u-turn. Its presence did not mean that the Defendant was in any way less able to cope with the confronting emergency of the u-turn. As its presence on the road did not further the Claimant’s case, neither did the distance between that car and the following Nova driven by the Defendant assist.

The Claimant had argued that if the Defendant had been further back in the road, maintaining a safe distance between his car and the first Nova, he would have had adequate room to stop. This fell into the fallacy of the “coincidence of location”. What was important was that when the Claimant began his u-turn the following Nova was 30 metres away. Many circumstances could have altered that coincidence. He might have been delayed at traffic lights so that he was further back. Mr Whittle might have stopped entirely to check the map or make a telephone call. Then also the accident would have been avoided. None of these possibilities made any difference. The two cars were where they were when the turn was commenced at a time when, had the Claimant been paying proper attention, he should and would never have done so. There was no negligence on the part of the Defendant that was causative of the Claimant’s injuries.

Appeal dismissed.

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