In a ruling which underlines that the cause of disasters can often be nothing more complicated than a fleeting moment of inattention, motor insurers face having to pay more than £2 million compensation after a motorist’s failure to engage his hand-brake triggered a potentially catastrophic train derailment.
The car was parked in a goods yard beside the West Coast main railway line when it ran away down a slope, through a fence and into the path of a fast-moving train in December 2008. That train was derailed and another locomotive was damaged when it ploughed into what remained of the car.
The motorist’s insurers accepted that he had to bear a large part of responsibility for the accident but insisted that he was not wholly to blame. In proceedings under the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978, they sought to recover part of their liability from the owner of the goods yard and Network Rail Infrastructure Limited.
The High Court noted that it was a matter of extreme good fortune that no-one suffered more than minor injuries in the accident. The motorist himself had acted with some courage and at great personal risk in following his car down the slope in a fruitless attempt to move it off the line before a train could strike it. However, the Court found that the cause of the accident was his ‘isolated, fleeting error’ in leaving the automatic car in neutral with the hand-brake disengaged.
The insurers’ plea that the owners of the yard were partially responsible in failing to appreciate the risk that in fact materialised and to install an adequate crash barrier between car park and train track were rejected by the Court. Arguments that Network Rail should have taken steps to alleviate the risk, particularly in the light of an earlier rail crash in which a car on the track cost 10 lives, were also dismissed. The motor insurers’ liabilities totalled in excess of £2 million, including a £545,000 claim by Network Rail which the Court upheld.