To what extent, if any, do occupiers of land bordering highways owe a duty of care to road users? The Court of Appeal considered that important issue in the tragic case of a mother who drowned when she veered off a road into a reservoir.
The woman was said to have lost control whilst negotiating a sharp bend on a minor road. She crossed the oncoming lane, and went through a wire fence on the verge and down a stone embankment into the reservoir, where her car submerged. She was in her 20s, and her children aged one and four, when she died.
Her widower launched a compensation claim against the owner of the reservoir and a charity that had a licence to use it. His claim under the Occupiers Liability Act 1984 was, however, summarily dismissed by a judge, who found that it had no real prospect of success.
In rejecting his appeal against that ruling, the Court found that there is nothing in the duties of those occupying properties bordering a highway that extends to preventing motorists from driving off the road onto their land. There was also nothing in the state of the reservoir that created a foreseeable danger against which its occupiers could reasonably be expected to guard. The reservoir was not claimed to amount to a public nuisance and it could not be said that its presence would have deterred a prudent motorist from using the highway.
The Court nevertheless permitted the widower’s alternative case against the local highway authority to proceed to a full trial. His claim that the accident arose from the negligent design and construction of the road – in the form of an unacceptably acute bend – stood a real prospect of success and the judge had been wrong to strike it out. The widower’s appeal was, in that respect only, upheld.