Responsibility for maintaining our roads, street lights, road side trees and signage rests with our highways authorities. It is well established in law that there is no ‘duty’ to provide signage on a road but if a sign is erected, then a positive duty is created to ensure that it has not been done negligently – this is not in itself controversial. However, where there may be less clarity is if the sign is damaged at a later date. Does the highway authority then have a duty if a member of the public is injured by it and if so what is that duty? These were the issues that the court had to address at a recent trial we defended.
The circumstances of the claim were quite simple. The accident occurred when the claimant walked into a sign which was positioned on a footpath.
The sign had been erected to warn the public that the lane was a dead end. However it been vandalised, and at the time of the top of the sign had slipped down slightly and was not in its original position. Therefore the claimant argued that the Council were liable in nuisance and in negligence. However the sign had been inspected only 4 days before the accident by a highways officer. He had allocated it for a repair, which was due to take place within 10 days. He took the view that the sign was not a danger. In particular he observed there was over 6 feet of clearance underneath it and it was at the side of a wide path. Crucially, he confirmed that if the sign presented an immediate risk then he would have allocated it for repair in 24 hours.
The claimant placed weight on the fact that after the accident, the officer ordered a square rather than a round pole for the sign to be fixed to, in order to assist in reducing movement through vandalism. But we argued that this did not mean that the highways authority were negligent for not making this changes pre accident.
In civil claims the claimant has the burden of proving the circumstances of the accident and that there has been a breach of duty. In this case the claimant had evidential difficulties from the outset as the court had difficulty in understanding the extent to which the position of the sign had changed after the inspection and before the accident – taking into account that there had been over 6 feet in clearance under it 4 days pre accident.
The court held that the 10 day repair request was reasonable and that consequently there was no breach of duty. As a result the claim was dismissed.
Ultimately it is important to remember that the duty to prove negligence against local authorities and highways authorities is the same as against any defendant. A claimant has to show there was a duty, that there was a breach of that duty, and that as a result damage resulted. The starting point of course is that the court has to understand the case that is being made and clearly in this case the Judge had difficulties based on the evidence before it.Regrettably, the actions of third parties, such as the vandals that damaged this sign, cannot always be anticipated. There had been no complaints prior to this incident and the highways authority had taken reasonable steps to arrange repairs in the circumstances. It is important to remember that we should not look back with hindsight when assessing liability, but reach a view based on what information was available at the time.