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Landmark ruling places liability on road designers

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THE DEPARTMENT of Transport is set to appeal against a landmark legal judgement that could leave road designers facing legal claims after road accidents, NCE has learned.

A High Court ruling by Judge Bruce Coles QC upheld a claim against the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (now Department of Transport) in April. He ruled that 'design defects' meant it was partially responsible for an accident in 1994 on a roundabout in Kent and 'owed a duty of care' to the motorcyclist who was severely injured.

Although the judge rejected many of the claims made by the motorcyclist and found that his speed of 30-40mph partially caused the accident, he accepted that aspects of the roundabout geometry should have been foreseen by designer Travers Morgan (since taken over by Symonds) as dangerous.

Lawyers now fear that the ruling as it stands, places much stricter liabilities on road-building agencies, designers and constructors.

The roundabout at the centre of the case is on the A229 and was built as part of the M20 Maidstone bypass improvement scheme. It was opened to traffic on June 20 1994, just 12 days before the accident.

The motorcyclist Tommy Francis King hit the road sign on the island of the roundabout after leaving a downhill slip road leading from the dual carriageway A229. The slip road had three lanes at the junction with the roundabout and veered to the right beforehand.

Two lanes had an approach angle of 60 0while the outside lane approached at 65 0. A Department of Transport design guidance note at the time - TA42/84 - recommended approach angles between 20 0and 60 0with 30 0recommended as optimum.

A safety audit involving Kent County Council carried out after completion of the roundabout warned that the layout could cause safety problems. A number of changes were later carried out after the accident.

King alleged negligence in the design of the roundabout, approach road, markings and signage. He claimed that the acute angle from the slip road onto the roundabout left him unable to merge safely on to it.

Civil engineer and lawyer Jeremy Chruscikowski of solicitors Eng Law described the case as 'highly significant'.

'Before this case the law was established by a 1996 House of Lords ruling which said a Highway Authority had no liability when it was carrying out works pursuant to statutory powers under the Highways Act 1980, ' he said.

'In that case - Stovin v Wise and Norfolk County Council - the local authority failed to remove a mound of earth which officials knew was obstructing the view of drivers coming from a side road.

'But the council was held to have no liability for failing to remove the mound because it could not be liable for something it had not done - an 'omission' - while it was acting under its statutory powers under the Highways Act, ' he said.

'In the recent case, Judge Coles drew a clear distinction between an act of omission and 'commission', which is how he characterised the 'improvements' carried out on the road.

This covers design and construction, and designers and constructors will have to take greater care to avoid reasonably foreseeable accidents resulting from their acts, ' said Chruscikowski .

He said the ruling would apply to anyone commissioning, designing or building road schemes that are covered by statutory powers such as the Highways Act.

The Department for Transport, which is now the defendant in the case after the Department for the Environment Transport and the Regions was recently renamed, is seeking to appeal against the ruling. The Appeal Court will decide on whether to grant leave to appeal by July 12.

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