A serious warning to drivers of cars to take extra care when confronted with “vulnerable” road users

cycling_image adjIn the case of Sinclair v Joyner [2015] the vulnerable road user was Mrs Sinclair who was riding her bicycle down a country lane. The Defendant, Mrs Joyner was travelling on the opposite side of the road.

Although some of the facts were disputed the court found that Mrs Sinclair was riding her bicycle along a narrow country lane close the centre line of the road. She was standing up on her peddles and looked to be in some discomfort. The defendant driving in the opposite direction slowed down to approximately 35 miles per hour and moved as far over to her side of the road as possible.

Tragically, at the point at which the bicycle and car passed each other, Mrs Sinclair lost control of her bike and crossed the centre line of the road and collided with the car Mrs Joyner was driving. She was knocked to the ground and sustained serious head injuries as a result.

The court found that Mrs Joyner had not crossed on to the cyclist’s side of the road in her car.

The Judge found for the Claimant cyclist. This tragic case is interesting from a legal perspective for a number of reasons:

  1. Liability

The finding in favour of the Claimant was notwithstanding that it was held that Mrs Joyner had never ventured on to the cyclists side of the road and it was Mrs Sinclair that had lost control of her bicycle causing her to veer across the white line and into collision with the passing car.

Making reference to the Highway Code, Cox J. pointed out that the section dealing with “road users requiring extra care” draws specific attention to cyclists and warns motorists to give them plenty of room when passing them. He considered that in these circumstances, Mrs Joyner did not give sufficient consideration to the potential hazard Mrs Sinclair presented and as such, was negligent.

At paragraph 57 of the Judgement he stated:

“On all the evidence, however, I find that in the particular circumstances of this case the Claimant has established to the requisite standard that the Defendant failed properly to assess the hazard that I am satisfied this Claimant presented as she drove around the bend and saw her; and that she failed to stop when it was necessary to do so, and when I find she had time to do so, to allow the Claimant to pass safely by.”

He went on to say at paragraph 65

“Motorists have to anticipate hazards in the road, particularly from vulnerable road users, and to be ready to react to them. In my judgment the Defendant cannot be relieved of that duty of care by seeking to blame the Claimant, who was obviously in difficulty, for deviating into her side of the road and colliding with the rear offside tyre, after the front of the car had gone past her. The fact that a collision occurred demonstrates that there was not sufficient room for her to pass the Claimant safely, and that the Defendant’s assumption to the contrary was in error. She ought to have appreciated that her car was too close to the center of the road for her to have passed this cyclist safely.”

The judgement serves as a stark warning to motorists that the law protects vulnerable road users and failure to spot the hazard that a cyclist might actually present and take the appropriate measures (in this case stopping the car completely to let the cyclist past) is likely to result in the driver of the car being held responsible for any accident that occurs.

  1. Failure to wear a helmet

Mrs Sinclair was not wearing a helmet.

There has been lots of attention in recent years about cycle safety and in particular whether helmets should be made compulsory; or indeed whether they offer any protection at all to the cyclist. Defendant insurance companies have long since argued that an automatic discount to damages should be applied to anyone involved in an accident on a bicycle that did not wear a helmet. The argument being that in failing to wear the helmet the cyclist has effectively contributed to the injuries they sustained.

The judge in this case however did not accept such arguments. He found that there had been no evidence to suggest that Mrs Sinclair’s injuries would have been any less serious if she had been wearing a helmet. The judge said:

“…no court has yet decided that failing to wear a helmet actually amounts to contributory negligence, although they have come close (see Smith v Finch [2009] EWHC 53 (QB)). In the present case the Claimant was an adult enjoying a bicycle ride in the countryside on a sunny day. There was no medical evidence adduced to show that failing to wear a helmet made the Claimant’s injuries worse, and the subject was not addressed in submissions.”

This case therefore re-affirms the present legal position that unless there is clear evidence to support arguments that a helmet would have reduced or prevented a head injury, it will not be taken into account when apportioning contribution towards injury.

  1. The role of the expert in a case

The judge was highly critical with one of the experts in particular in this case and observed that many of his conclusions were based purely on supposition and speculation and did not assist the court. He ruled that much of his report was inadmissible as evidence as a result and reaffirmed the correct role of the expert in any litigation: to assist the judge in determining facts – not to determine facts himself!

Cox J. recounted an earlier case of Liddell to get his point across:

“As Stuart Smith LJ emphasised in Liddell, the reconstruction expert’s role is to provide the judge with the necessary scientific criteria and assistance based upon his or her specific skills and experience, which the lay judge will not usually possess, to enable the judge to interpret the factual evidence. It is not, as [the expert] described it in the witness box, ‘. . . to discover the facts and to use my expertise and experience to give an opinion as to what happened’.”

In other words, it is trial by judge, not trial by expert.

This judgement sends a very strong message to drivers insurance companies engaged in trying to dodge responsibility for the often devastating effects of road traffic accidents involving bicycles. Mrs Sinclair was successful in her claim against the driver she came into collision with. Whilst money can in no way fully compensate for the lives that are shattered by accidents involving serious head injuries, we can at least take some comfort that the law, as it currently stands, recognises the need to protect vulnerable road users.