Cycling Accidents caused through impaired visibility through overgrown vegetation

Category: Personal Injury

What is the legal position of the landowner who allows vegetation to become overgrown such that it restricts visibility at road junctions?

This question fell to be decided earlier this year by the Court of Appeal.  Somewhat surprisingly this issue has not come before the Courts before now.  The case involved that of Roy Sumner, a cyclist who was seriously injured.  Mr Sumner was cycling along the A394 in North Wales.  Michael Colburn who was driving a car emerged from a small side turning on Mr Sumner’s left and came into collision with Mr Sumner and his bike. There was no doubt that Mr Colburn’s visibility to his right was severely restricted by the presence of vegetation, in particular, a fenced-off parcel of land bordering the A394 and the minor road from which he was emerging.

The important point to note is that the main issue in the case did not concern whether the vegetation actually obstructed the Highway.  The question was did the overgrown vegetation in itself give rise to a liability by restricting visibility at the mouth of the junction?

It was clear that if the junction was designed today it would not have been deemed safe as the visibility was only 15% of the minimum requirements. Due to the ancient and extensive road network in the UK there is no requirement on local authorities to upgrade visibility at junctions to ensure that modern standards are met.

The insurers of Mr Colburn, the motorist, sought to blame the third party land owner for their contribution towards the accident by virtue of the fact that the vegetation had overgrown and restricted visibility.

The Court of Appeal decided that there were no previous precedents in the Courts on this issue and accordingly if they were going to impose a new duty of care on the local authority as the landowner then they would be developing new law.  The Courts have made it clear in recent cases that this should only be done with extreme caution and on a very restricted basis.

The Court of Appeal decided that the owners of the land “created no expectations as to the extent of visibility of the junction and created no trap.  The fact that visibility was limited at the time of the accident was obvious to any careful road user.

The Court felt that if they imposed a duty of care on owners of land to ensure that vegetation in their fields and gardens did not affect vision on neighbouring highways, the effects would be profound.  Farmers would need to consider visibility on the highway when deciding where to plant crops, hedges and trees and when to harvest, prune or fell them.  Indeed similar issues would arise in a domestic setting as regards the planting of shrubs, hedges or trees in urban or suburban gardens.  Also, the principle would extend to the erection of buildings.  This could adequately be dealt with by planning controls.  It would be wrong to add a new duty of care in terms of a private right of action to sue for breach of that duty.

The Court emphasised previous cases which had underlined the fact that the road network is imperfect and drivers must take it as they find it.  The Court underlined the previous decision of the House of Lords that a Local Authority was not under a duty of care to improve a road junction.

The Court would not impose a duty of care on the landowner in this case.

It is important to note that if the vegetation actually extends onto the highway then it is a very different matter but again in this case there was no compelling evidence that there was any obstruction of the highway by vegetation and so the Local Authority landowner were successful on that point as well.

This case is a good example of the compensation culture myth. It is not always the case that someone is to blame.  The Courts do recognise that on occasions there are pure accidents which cannot be avoided even though reasonable care has been taken.

Mr Sumner’s case will now continue on the basis of whether or not the driver was negligent in colliding with him at the junction taking into account the fact that he did have restricted visibility.  Much will depend on the speed at which Mr Sumner was cycling and the amount of time which Mr Colburn had to see Mr Sumner before he pulled out into his path.

If you are cyclist who has been involved in an accident, contact the experts at Nash & Co for a free case appraisal.