A case in which a motorist suffered serious head injuries when his Land Rover was squashed beneath a falling sycamore tree gave rise to a novel test case in which a judge was asked to define what is, and is not, a ‘road traffic accident’.
Lawyers representing the motorist had sued a landowner, claiming that the tree was in poor condition and that the accident was foreseeable. The landowner had argued that the tree was not on her land and was not so diseased as to pose an obvious danger. The driver ultimately accepted £100,000 in settlement of his claim.
The landowner also agreed to pay the motorist’s legal costs; however, an issue arose as to how those costs should be calculated. She argued that the incident was a road traffic accident and that, by operation of the Civil Procedure Rules, the driver’s lawyers were thus entitled to a fixed success fee of only 12.5 per cent.
In seeking a 100 per cent success fee, the motorist’s lawyers argued that the case had raised unusually difficult issues and that it was merely incidental that he happened to be at the wheel of his car when the accident occurred. It was submitted that he might just as well have been on foot, or on horseback, when the tree fell.
However, in upholding the landowner’s arguments, a county court judge ruled that the accident had ‘arisen out of the use of a motor vehicle on a road’ and that the 12.5 per cent cap therefore applied. He noted that the motorist had been driving on a public road at the time of the accident and was subject to road traffic regulations and duties. To rule that the accident was anything other than a road traffic accident would amount to ‘an unwarranted disregard of common sense’.
The judge concluded, “If a person is driving along the road safely and lawfully and something comes onto the road and collides with that person’s car, that is, in the eyes of most ordinary and reasonable people, pre-eminently to be considered a road traffic accident.”