The bad weather which resulted in hundreds of people seeking medical attention in A&E’s across the country for suspected fractures and broken bones will inevitably lead to litigation claims. Many of the injuries consist of fractures which traditionally attract significant compensation awards.
There has been some discussion recently concerning the legal duties owed by Local Authorities and occupiers of land to road users and pedestrians. The traditional legal position is that public authorities will not be liable for damages arising from their failure to maintain public roads.
Section 60(1) of the Civil Liability Act 1961 did provide that “a road authority shall be liable for damage caused as a result of their failure to maintain adequately a public road” but successive Governments have refused to sign the appropriate Ministerial Order to give this provision legal effect.
However claimants could rely on Section 13 of the Roads Act 1993 which provides that “the maintenance and construction of all national and regional roads shall be a function of the council or county borough, corporation of that county”. Therefore there is some inconsistency in the statutory provisions.
The legal position is that Local Authorities will not be liable for their failure to maintain the highway but could be liable for accidents arising from negligence regarding the maintenance or repair of the highway. The issue then is would gritting of roads and putting other substances on roads and footpaths amount to acts of repair?
There are also issues concerning the types of substances placed on roads and footpaths by Local Authorities and their contractors. An injured victim could argue that these types of materials did not adequately grit roads but contributed to the occurance of an accident. This would be a matter for engineering evidence in each separate case.
Many people have also sustained falls outside business premises such as hotels and supermarket car parks. This is the area of occupier’s liability. The Occupiers Liability Act 1995 imposes a duty of care on occupiers to take such care as is reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that a visitor to premises does not suffer injury or damage by reason of any danger existing thereon.
In many cases the failure by occupiers to take steps to ensure that pathways were treated with salt and grit and to place mats at or near the entrance to their premises could create liability problems for them. It is more likely that claims against occupiers would have a greater chance of success as courts might be reluctant to impose liability on public authorities which could lead to a huge number of claims being taken.
There is also the issue of discovery of documentation. Under the rules of court the Local Authorities and other Defendants may have to produce documents supporting the efforts taken by them to reduce the hazards on roads and on their properties. In many cases these records simply would not exist as given the urgency attached in treating roads and footpaths and other areas this may not have been considered a priority by them.
If the court orders discovery of documents they must be discovered.
Certain claimants could also argue that causing an obstruction on the public highway amounted to a public nuisance. A nuisance is not confined to an obstruction of the highway it could also consist of anything which makes use of the highway unsafe or dangerous to the public.
Therefore it is clear that the whole area of litigation arising from the weather freeze is a legal minefield with many potential avenues available to injured parties to seek compensation.