Road accident: Rear end shunts

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It is commonly believed that if one vehicle runs into the back of another, the 'shunter' will always be the one to blame; This is not entirely true as two recent cases show.

Anderson -v- Warburtons Ltd 12/5/2011 - the person hit was found to be two thirds to blame and the lorry driver (the shunter) one third.

The car driver, Margaret Anderson, claimed damages from Warburtons after a lorry driven by one of its employers struck her stationary car on a dual carriageway.  She pulled out to overtake the lorry and noticed smoke coming from the rear of her vehicle.  She realised that she needed to stop but failed to notice a sign indicating an upcoming lay-by or the lay-by itself.  She came to a stop at the very end of lay-by, partially sticking out into the carriageway.  It was here that she was struck by the lorry.

Her case was that she had been faced with a frightening situation of which she had no previous experience and her decision making was coloured by and affected by her fear.  In her panic she did not see the lay-by.  She stopped the car as close to the edge of the carriageway as she could with only a small part of it protruding into the inside lane.

She argued that she was not at fault and the responsibility should rest with the lorry driver due to his failure to take appropriate action and avoid a collision.

A police officer gave evidence that Margaret Anderson's car was straddling the white line marking the edge of the carriageway and confirmed that it would have been possible for her to stop so that no part of her vehicle protruded into the road.  Another motorist who was driving behind the lorry driver gave evidence that the smoke had caused poor visibility and that the lorry driver had gradually reduced his speed and they were travelling at no more than 20 to 25 mph.  The smoke was so bad that the car driver actually lost sight of the lorry in front of him. The Judge held that it was reasonable for the lorry driver to try to slow down gradually instead of slamming on the breaks as this could have caused the lorry to jack knife possibly resulting in a serious accident.  However, he still drove at a speed that was too fast for the conditions and should have reduced his speed in order to ensure a clear stopping distance and was therefore partly to blame for the collision.
As for Margaret Anderson, the Judge held that her panic did not excuse her failure to stop her car safely in the lay-by.  In addition even when she did stop, she did not do it as safely as she might have done.  This resulted in the 2/3 v 1/3 split in favour of the lorry driver.   

Bellingham -v- Todd 5/5/2011 - a motor cyclist (the shunter) was held to be 80% to blame and the truck driver Defendant 20% to blame

The motor cyclist, Bellingham, was travelling behind a truck driven by Mr Todd on a 60 mph limit road when the truck braked hard to turn at a junction.  Bellingham had to swerve to avoid riding into the back of the truck.  Unfortunately his handlebar clipped the van and he lost control and was propelled into the path of an oncoming vehicle and into a head-on collision.  Tragically, Mr Bellingham died as a result of his injuries.

Bellingham's family claimed that Todd's actions amounted to negligence because he carried out emergency braking without adequate justification.  They also alleged that his actions had caused the accident.  They accepted that Mr Bellingham was riding too close to the rear of the van and there was a degree of contributory negligence on his part.

An eyewitness gave evidence that the truck stopped very quickly.  The truck driver gave evidence that he approached the junction gradually.

There was no physical evidence of skid marks on the road but the question of why Todd had braked had not been satisfactorily answered, as the junction was signposted and he would have been put on alert that he might be required to stop or slow down.

The Judge held that Todd was therefore in part to blame for the accident.  An emergency in the road was created by his own inattention and the accident would not have happened but for his negligence.  By braking hard, Todd was in breach of his duty of care to his fellow road users and had not adhered to the Highway Code.

It was also held that the Bellingham was 10 metres behind Todd's van.  He should have been 34-44 metres behind.  He therefore had not allowed himself sufficient room to stop and his conduct was reckless.The Judge found the van driver 20% to claim. The above cases are not a new phenomenon.  Blame has been split between shunted and shunter before.

Transports Frigoriphiques  (TF)  -v- Transportes Olloquiegui  (TO) -  2000 - the shunter was found to be totally innocent

In this case due to vehicle defects the emergency brakes were triggered causing the vehicle to come to an immediate halt without the rear brake lights coming on.  The lorry was travelling at 50 mph.  The cars directly behind the lorry swerved into the hard shoulder but there was no where for a lorry  travelling behind the cars to go.  Although the driver braked he was unable to bring his lorry to a halt before colliding heavily with the rear of the broken down lorry.

TF claimed that TO's driver, a professional heavy goods driver with over 30 years experience should have been able to keep a safe distance from vehicles in front and the speed in which he was travelling should have been sufficient to allow him to stop in case of an emergency evolving in front of him.  However TF's vehicle came to an immediate and unnoticeable stop with the result that the accident was inevitable and unavoidable.
The judge held that safe driving speeds and distances were speeds at which a driver was capable of dealing with foreseeable emergencies and the abrupt and immediate halt of the lorry did not fit into this category.   

Brown -v- Thompson 1968 - the shunter was held 20% liable

Brown was driving his car on a road thickly covered with snow at approximately 3am when he collided with Thompson's lorry.  The lorry had no rear lights nor reflectors and it blocked half the width of the road.  There was no evidence that the Brown was driving at great speed on dipped head lights.  Despite this, he was still found to be 20% to blame.

The Highway Code deals with stopping distances and driving at a sufficient distance to react to a danger is vital.  If a driver is unlucky enough to drive into a vehicle that does not automatically mean they are completely at fault and conversely just because someone rear ends another road user, it does not mean they are blameless.  It is therefore important that that road users think before braking hard, turning without indicating and doing something unexpected.  Drivers may be at fault for any resulting accident. 

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