Damages award highlights pothole claims

The legal ins and outs of crashing on bad roads

A cyclist injured when he hit a road pothole has been awarded £7,600 in compensation.

Ian Davis, 49, from Berkshire, was thrown from his bike after hitting a pothole and suffered broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder, plus hip and knee injuries during his ride along the B4000 from Lambourn to Newbury in February 2006. He was treated in hospital and still requires regular GP care. 

"I'm an avid cyclist and travel this route regularly," said Mr Davis. "On the day of the accident, the weather was clear but the pothole in the road was not visible from my bike.  As I went over the pothole, the handlebars from my bike immediately ripped out of my hands, causing me to lose my balance and I crashed to the ground.

"The accident had a significant impact on my lifestyle - I was unable to work for two weeks after the fall, and after that could only work in half capacity for a further six weeks and had to depend on my partner to help keep things afloat.  I'm still able to cycle but due to the pain in my left shoulder and arm, I can't ride for long periods like I used to."

Richard Brooks, partner in Withy King solicitors, put the accident in its legal context, stressing how pothole induced injuries won't necessarily mean a damages payout. Compensation depends on a wide range of factors, including the site of the pothole and the local authority's procedures, so that legal advice is strongly advised.

"We have a regular stream of cycling clients with injuries suffered as a result of defective road surfaces," Brooks told BikeRadar. "The duty of the authority responsible for road safety under the Highways Act 1980 is to keep roads in such a state as to be safe and fit for ordinary traffic.

"If an accident is suffered because of the state of the highway, it is for the claimant to show that it was not reasonably safe.  If a reasonable man inspecting the state of affairs would consider that there was a significant chance that someone going along the road may be injured then the highway authority could be held responsible for accidents caused.  Critically the claimant does not have to prove fault on the part of the highway authority."

The authority's working practices will also come under scrutiny, as Brooks further points out: "It is worth noting that the highway authority will escape responsibility if it has a reasonable system of inspection and maintenance, which could not have prevented road users being exposed to the danger. If the authority cannot reasonably be expected to know about the road defect (because it has just appeared, for example) then it may escape liability. It speaks for itself that if the authority is warned by road users that there is a defect it is put on notice that there is an obligation to carry out repairs.  If it then fails to do so it is easier to prove the case for clients. I am always interested to look at the highway authority's inspection records and complaints log if they deny liability."

Brooks also stresses the state of repair reasonably expected is relative to the particular road under consideration: "We must remember that the obligation of the highway authority differs depending on the type of the road and those that use it.  For example, a road might present no dangers whatsoever to car drivers, but on the other hand, it might present foreseeable risks to cyclists."

He also outlined the following practical steps to be taken should a pothole accident occur:

  • Record the exact location - the road and the building number/name, if any, the pothole is outside.
  • Record the measurement of the hole.
  • If possible take a picture with a ruler next to the hole, or if not something recognisable, to assist in proving the size of the hole. Do this as quickly as possible.
  • Note damage to your bike and person.
  • Take the contact details of any witnesses.

Cyclists Touring Club, the UK's largest cyclist members organisation,  runs a website - www.fillthathole.org.uk - that enables cyclists (and other road users) to zoom into any road in the UK and mark the location of a pothole. The site then automatically e-mails the local authority, which is then expected to take action.

CTC say of the system: "It takes no longer than 2 minutes to use and if a problem is ignored and subsequently someone crashes, it is possible to show that the council knew about it."

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