Roads and Traffic Authority v Royal and Smurthwaite [2008] HCA 19

03 June 2008 Topics: Insurance

The High Court has determined that the Roads and Traffic Authority [RTA] was not to blame for a motor vehicle accident at a known “black spot” as the drivers themselves were at fault.

Circumstances of the accident

On 12 March 2001, a collision occurred between a vehicle driven by Royal [R] and one driven by Smurthwaite [S] near the intersection of Bago Road with the Pacific Highway, New South Wales.

Both drivers knew the intersection well. Nothing impeded the drivers’ line of vision. Each would have been aware of the other vehicle. This was confirmed by independent witnesses to the event.

S sustained serious injuries. He instituted proceedings against R and the RTA for negligence. R and the RTA denied negligence, alleged contributory negligence by S and cross-claimed against each other.

At first instance

Phelan DCJ, found the “primary cause” of the collision was R’s breach of his duty of care. Contributory negligence of one third was found against S. The claim and cross-claim against the RTA was dismissed. This was because the RTA had taken some steps to address the problem.

On Appeal

On appeal, the majority of the NSW Court of Appeal, allowed R’s appeal against the dismissal of his cross-claim against the RTA. It refused to allow a challenge for reapportionment of liability between R and S.

The majority [Santow and Tobias JJA; Basten JA in dissent] found the RTA was in breach of its duty to take reasonable steps to alleviate what was a known danger at a specific location and with specific options available for seeking to remedy it.

The chain of causation was not broken by R’s supervening act. His conduct did not render the antecedent breach of duty of the RTA as no longer operative.

Special Leave to Appeal

The RTA was granted special leave to appeal to the High Court, limited to the question of whether a breach of its duty of care caused S’s injury.

The judgment

On 14 May 2008, the High Court, by a 4-1 majority [Gummow, Hayne, Heydon and Kiefel JJ; Kirby J dissenting], allowed the appeal.

Their Honours were critical of the Court of Appeal’s dealing with the issue of causation and agreed the chain of causation had not been established. The Court did not agree with the reasoning that where there exists a possibility of risk of injury this is sufficient to prove causation.

At [25] Gummow, Hayne and Heydon JJ stated, “… even if it could be said the RTA’s breach of duty “did materially contribute” to the occurrence of an accident, “by creating a heightened risk of such an accident” due to the obscuring effect of one vehicle on another in an adjoining lane, it made no contribution to the occurrence of this accident.”

In summary, the majority held that any fault in the design of the intersection did not contribute to the particular accident. It was insufficient to suggest that there was a statistical possibility of an accident at the intersection because it was not the best design. To hold the RTA liable would be to impose something approaching absolute liability. The cause was driver error.

If you have any queries regarding this issue or would like to discuss any other matters related to insurance law, please feel free to contact a member of our Insurance team on 07 3231 2444.

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