Pothole crash leaves council huge bill

Posted: 30th April 2013

Pothole1In a case which underlines the ‘absolute’ duty owed by local authorities to ensure that roads are regularly inspected and maintained in a safe condition for drivers, a council is facing a multi-million-pound compensation bill after a pothole on a rural lane contributed to an accident in which two people suffered catastrophic injuries.

Devon County Council was sued after a Land Rover crashed into trees after hitting a deep rut on a winding country lane in November 2006. One passenger in the car was left tetraplegic, also suffering a traumatic amputation of one arm, and was later paid by insurers a £3 million lump sum as well as index-linked annual payments of £275,000 to cover care costs for life. Another passenger received £1,250,000 for serious multiple injuries.

In 2012, a High Court judge found the council 100% liable for the accident on the basis that the safety inspection regime in respect of the stretch of road had been inadequate and its state of repair was ‘well below a standard a reasonable driver could expect’.

The Court of Appeal has now allowed the local authority’s appeal against that ruling in part, substituting a finding that it was 50% liable for the accident. However, the ruling means that the council will still have to contribute half of the compensation paid to the injured passengers.

In the original High Court ruling, Mrs Justice Slade said that the council knew that the road was used by lorries and agricultural plant which tended to override and damage the soft verges. The pothole which brought the Land Rover to grief was deep enough to cover the base of a traffic cone. The council accepted that the pothole would have been repaired, had it been noticed in time, and that the state of the road at the accident scene was ‘not satisfactory’.

Explaining why the road was inspected only twice-a-year, rather than monthly as recommended, the council said that it had to make ‘very difficult choices’ and that it was ‘a question of available resources’. However, the judge said that the additional £23,000-a-year it would have cost to look at the road monthly, out of a highways budget of £71 million, was a ‘perfectly affordable’ sum and a ‘weak justification’ for the low frequency of inspections. The council had carried out no risk assessment before adopting the six-monthly inspection regime.

The Court of Appeal upheld the judge’s ruling that the council had breached its absolute duty under the Highways Act 1980 to adequately inspect and maintain the winding and hilly road but the court went on to rule that the Land Rover's driver bore a 50% share of responsibility for the accident.

The rut in the road had been 'there to be seen'; there had been 'plenty of room' to manoeuvre and there was 'simply no escape' from the conclusion that the driver's inadvertent error in not seeing and avoiding the damaged area contributed to the accident. The court concluded:  "Although the error may have been one which many might make, it amounted to a significant failure to keep a proper lookout and to manage the car correctly; it had terrible consequences”.