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Carriageways, footways and standards of maintenance

Shaun O'Neil and Nicola Hyam report on a recent case where a claimant sought to argue that a village road in the Lakes should have been maintained to the standards of a footway.

When is a carriageway not a carriageway?

This was the question the court was being asked to determine where a holiday maker tripped and fell on a village road in the lake district. We acted for Zurich Insurance and their customer Cumbria County Council. The claimant rented a property in an idyllic village location with access to the Lakeland fells. While walking his dogs along the road, he stepped into a minor pothole measuring no more than 30mm in depth, turning and fracturing his ankle. On account of its rural location, there were no footpaths in the area. As such the claimant’s legal team sought to argue that the carriageway should have been inspected and maintained to the standards of a footway. The claimant attempted to use his status as a tourist and the fact that the accident locus was within a national park as reasons why the carriageway had to be inspected and maintained to a higher standard.

As the location was within the national park, it was argued by the claimant that tourist and pedestrian traffic would be high, particularly as the road led up to the base of a popular Lakeland fell. In addition, the village school was served by a marked footway, situated within the carriageway, and this was inspected to the footway standard. That marked walkway extended from the village up to the school, but then stopped some distance before the accident location. The claimant sought to argue that the requirement for the walkway placed the Highway Authority on notice that pedestrians had no option other than to walk in the carriageway, and that meant that a higher standard of inspections and maintenance should apply.

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We submitted that the marked walkway was provided to ensure that there was a safe space for children and parents to walk to and from the village school. There was no obligation to extend this or to inspect all carriageways within the national park to a higher standard, simply because tourists and recreational walkers would be present. The accident locus was on the outskirts of the village and would not be subject to heavy footfall. In addition, while the road did lead to a popular fell, the majority of walkers would arrive by car and use the car park at its base.

At trial, the local knowledge of the witnesses for the Highway Authority was crucial. In addition to being able to evidence the safety inspections and the implementation of the highways policy, all of the witnesses were able to respond to questions regarding the character of the locus, traffic volumes and access by pedestrians. That additional detail was crucial in persuading the trial judge to find as a matter of fact that the character of the area and the usage by pedestrians was such that the locus had been correctly treated as a carriageway. There was no reason or necessity to inspect and maintain this location to a higher standard. Accordingly, the pothole was not considered to be dangerous and the claim failed.

This provides a good example of how knowledgeable witnesses can assist the trial judge. It is likely that a generic response and formulaic statements would not have had the same impact as the local knowledge, together with the obvious pride and interest that the witnesses were able to demonstrate for their patch.

Read more from DAC Beachcroft's Casualty Injury experts here.

Shaun O'Neil and Nicola Hyam are partners at DAC Beachcroft.

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