Liability for roadside obstruction

In the recent case Sumner v Colborne [2018] RWCA Civ 1006 the Court was asked to consider whether it is was possible for landowners to be liable for road traffic accidents, resulting from the presence of an obstruction upon their land (such obstruction being roadside vegetation).

In Sumner v Colborne a motorist joined a main road from a side road, and upon doing so collided with a cyclist. The cyclist brought proceedings against the motorist who entered a defence which claimed that overgrown roadside vegetation on nearby adjacent land had obscured his view, in so far that he did not see the cyclist. The claim between the cyclist and the motorist is yet to be tried.

In the interim, the motorist brought proceedings against the local council, who were the highway authority for the minor side road, and the motorist also brought proceedings against the Welsh Ministers who were the highway authority for the main road. The Welsh Ministers, who owned the land with the vegetation, had previously carried out maintenance on the land for the benefit of the highway. The motorist claimed that these maintenance works had made the junction far more dangerous. The Welsh Ministers had delegated most of their powers to the council, and the motorist argued that maintenance of the vegetation was a reasonable part of the council’s function.

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the Judge at first instance, striking out the claim on the basis that there was no common law duty on the part of the council to maintain the vegetation on the neighbouring land. The Court held that there cannot be a duty of care imposed on landowners to ensure that vegetation within their own land should not interfere with the sightlines of road users.

The motorist relied on case law with similar facts, namely Yetkin v London Borough of Newham [2010] EWCA Civ 776, in which the highway authority was found liable for restricting visibility by planting and failing to maintain vegetation on a traffic island. The Court distinguished this case, and other similar cases, on the basis that they involved the creation on dangers on the highway, not adjacent to the highway.

The Court explained that extending the duty of care to landowners, as the motorist was suggesting, would have widespread and profound implications on landowners, and will have the unwelcome consequence of encouraging litigation by motorists who seek to pass on their liability.

Following this, the motorist then brought a second claim, alleging that the vegetation had protruded onto the road; however this was rejected by the court which held that based on photographic evidence, the small amount of vegetation on the footpath was not substantial enough, with sufficient proximity, to impose any liability.

This decision reinforces the presumption that it is the duty of the motorist to drive according to the road conditions.

Should you require any litigation advice please contact our litigation team on 01702338338 or by email at litigation@paulrobinson.co.uk.