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Apportionment of Liability In Road Traffic Accidents Involving Multiple Collisions - Nicholas Dobbs, Temple Garden Chambers

21/01/22. In Martini v Royal Sun Alliance Insurance Plc [2022] EWHC 33 (QB), the High Court was required to consider claims in negligence arising from a series of motor vehicle collisions, all occurring within a few minutes of each other before dawn on 15 October 2015, on an unlit section of the M20. The collisions were precipitated by the driver of a Fiat van falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into an HGV in front of him. The van remained stranded and unlit in the middle of a dark carriageway. The collisions that followed thereafter are summarised at the beginning of the judgment (at [3]). The damage and serious injuries that resulted gave rise to two separate claims, which were tried together. At trial there were five separately represented parties, and it fell to the court to consider the apportionment of liability.

The analysis of the relevant law begins (at [54]) by citing the comments of Master Davison in Stark v. Lyddon [2019] EWHC 2076 (QB), at [27]:

I turn then to the apportionment of liability, which requires an assessment of the blameworthiness and causative potency of the negligence found against each motorist. Cases on apportionment formed the bulk of the authorities cited to me. But, as has been said many times before, this is an exercise which is exquisitely fact-sensitive and previous decisions are of limited assistance.”

Accepting that the apportionment of liability is highly fact-sensitive, the Court noted that there were two important legal principles to be borne in mind when conducting its analysis (at [55]).

Firstly (at [56]), the Court should not require the same standard of care from a party forced to exercise judgment in the ‘agony of the moment’ as it may do from a party who reaches a decision without being subjected to such pressures (at [56]). The Court referred to YYY, Aviva Insurance Ltd. v. ZZZ [2021] EWHC 632 (QB), at [56]:

... it is clear that the conduct of the defendant cannot be judged with the benefit of hindsight or, in my view, having regard to nice calculations done by experts with the benefit of computer models and calculators. What matters is whether, having identified a potential hazard, the claimant has established that the steps taken by the defendant to mitigate it were not reasonable steps or a reasonable response even in the agony of the moment.”

Secondly (at [59]), assessing what is a relevant cause in law for the purposes of attributing tortious liability, in road traffic accident cases and more generally, is an exercise that requires the application of common sense. The Court cited Wright v. Lodge [1993] RTR 123 (CA), in which Staughton LJ observed at p.132:

... Causation depends on common sense and not on theoretical analysis by a philosopher or metaphysician ... Not every cause ‘without which not’ or ‘but for’ is regarded as a relevant cause in law. The judge or jury must choose, by the application of common sense, the cause (or causes) to be regarded as relevant.”

It was ultimately determined that the negligent driving of the first driver, who fell asleep at the wheel, was the sole relevant cause of the damage and injuries sustained. The judgment contains analysis of the actions taken by other drivers against whom allegations of contributory negligence were made and summarises some of the closing submissions, much of which demonstrates the difficulty in applying intensive, forensic scrutiny to split-second decisions. Although that analysis is fact-sensitive, practitioners may find the application of the relevant principles here both useful and instructive for similar cases.

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