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Lambert v Clayton, Court of Appeal, 20 March 2009

30 March 2009
The issues

Road traffic – motorcycle – excessive speed.

The facts

On 3rd May 2004 on the B6265 an accident occurred at about 10.20am. The B6265 was a single carriageway road, about 6.5 meters wide with a broken white line in the centre and subject to the speed limit of 60mph. It was fairly straight but crossed undulating countryside. Mr Lambert, who lived at Slade House Farm, access to which was from a lane which led at an angle off the East side of the road, was returning home from Blubberhouses, driving his Vauxhall Brava pickup and towing a cattle trailer carrying a calf. The two vehicles combined were about 10 meters long. As he turned into the lane a Honda motorcycle driven by Mr Clayton collided with the rear near side of the Vauxhall pickup and the front near side corner of the trailer at high speed. The fuel tank of the Honda burst into flames and Mr Clayton was killed instantly. His widow brought an action for damages.

The police had attended, taking photographs and marked the positions of skid marks and gouge marks. Although there were skid marks showing that the Vauxhall had braked sharply in the lane, there was no sign that the motorcycle had braked at all.

The Claimant alleged that the Defendant had turned across the path of the motorcycle when it was clearly in view. The Defendant alleged that the road, ahead as far as the summit or crest of the road was concerned, was clear when he began his turn and that the motorcycle had come over the crest travelling very fast. The Defendant’s case was that he had had no other option than to proceed and had accelerated in an attempt to clear the carriageway but had been unable to do so before the collision because of the speed of the motorcycle. There were no independent eyewitnesses to the collision.

The Judge inferred that the motorcyclist had been riding at 80mph and found that the cyclist 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 and before the collision. Had he been travelling at 60mph the time would have been about 4 seconds. There was no challenge to those findings. The Judge found that the Defendant was negligent in deciding to continue his turn into the lane when he saw the motorcycle coming over the summit of the hill. The Judge found that he could and should have aborted his turn when he saw the motorcycle. On that basis he found for the Claimant, subject to a deduction of 75% contributory negligence on the part of the motorcyclist.

The Defendant Appealed.

The decision

The Defendant’s duty was to drive with reasonable prudence and competence. The Judge had not been critical of Mr Lambert’s driving in any respect other than that he had made the wrong choice when faced with a split-second decision. The Judge did not find that he had not kept a proper look out. Nor did he find that he was not entitled to begin his turn when he did. It was not said that he failed to see the motorcyclist as soon as he appeared, nor that he was travelling at an inappropriate speed. Nor was it said that he had taken an inappropriate line of travel when crossing into the South bound carriageway. The only criticism that the Judge had made was that when he had seen the Honda come over the crest he should have chosen to abort the turn rather than to press on.

The Judge had not explained that conclusion. However, it required some explanation. The Judge had not made it plain whether it had been feasible to abort the turn or in what way. Nor had the Judge worked out, in a Judgment in which he had purported to be able to work out times and distances with a high degree of accuracy, where Mr Lambert’s car would have finished up if he had braked hard. The Judge had been influenced, it had appeared to the Court, by consideration of the outcome of the incident rather than the situation which faced Mr Lambert at the moment of decision. He had not therefore expressly considered the reasonableness of his decision in the light of what he knew of the general background and what he knew or ought to have known about the unfolding situation. Finally, he had not given reasons for holding that Mr Lambert’s decision was negligent.

The Judgment was therefore open to criticism and the Court of Appeal ought to review the decision. The question which had to be answered was whether the decision to continue the turn was negligent at the time that he took it in the light of the position he was in and what he knew or ought to have known at that moment.

He had already begun the turn, reasonably believing that it was safe to do so. He was applying acceleration as he was going up hill and had applied some right hand lock. To that extent he was committed to the turn. He well knew that the distance between him and the crest of the hill was short and that it was not uncommon for vehicles to come over at an excessive speed. He knew his own vehicle was long and did not have good acceleration. He saw the motorcycle immediately on its appearance. However, however carefully he was looking he would not have immediately have been able to tell that the motorcycle was travelling at an abnormally fast speed. The decision had to be therefore largely instinctive. In that first split second, the fact that a vehicle had appeared on the crest at a speed that Mr Lambert could not immediately assess created an imperative that Mr Lambert should immediately abort his turn. His duty was to take reasonable care for the oncoming vehicle’s safety and also to give it precedence. Giving precedence did not necessarily entail allowing an oncoming vehicle to proceed unimpeded at a very fast speed. It is not necessarily negligent, particularly on a country road where large, slow vehicles have to use the highway, for one driver to cause another driver the inconvenience of having to slow down.

Negligence cannot be inferred in this kind of situation from the fact that the collision had occurred. It could not be said that Mr Lambert’s reaction and decision fell below the standard of reasonable prudence or competence. Had he taken a different decision the accident might have been avoided. That was not the test. Judges must take care not to hold a motorist liable in negligence just because the accident might have been avoided if a different decision had been taken.

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 Vauxhall and trailer.

There was a danger of doing injustice if Judges made unwarrantedly precise findings of fact in circumstances where there was a paucity of eyewitness evidence and where there was dependence on inference and reconstruction experts and the calculations which they encouraged. If there were inherent uncertainties about the facts, as there were in this case, it was dangerous to make precise findings.

Appeal allowed.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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