Court of Appeal delivers head-on decision in head-on collision case

23 November 2020

A head-on collision occurred on a straight road with 1 lane in each direction. The driver of each vehicle brought a claim against the other alleging they were at fault for the accident. Both vehicles were insured by the same CTP insurer.

Following a liability only trial held in May 2020, the Supreme Court found that 1 driver was wholly responsible for the accident. The other driver appealed to the Court of Appeal. The appeal was unanimously dismissed.

In issue

  • Whether the trial judge erred in discretionary findings of credit regarding various factual witnesses who gave evidence in the Supreme Court trial.

The background

In our 22 May 2020 edition of Case Collective we reported on the Brisbane Supreme Court decisions in Harris v Manton & Anor [2020] QSC 101 and Manton v Harrison & Anor [2020] QSC 102. Both matters related to a head-on collision that occurred on 2 July 2015 on the Bribie Island Road in Queensland.

Mitchell Harris and Dane Manton were the drivers and sole occupants of their respective vehicles. Mr Harris and Mr Manton issued separate proceedings in the Brisbane Supreme Court alleging that the other was 100% liable for the accident. The collision was not caused by a mechanical defect in either vehicle.

Their claims proceeded to a joint liability trial in May 2020. There was no expert evidence at the trial. Eyewitnesses to the accident and the Police forensic investigating officer provided the only evidence at trial.

The decision at trial

The trial judge found that based on the photographic evidence it was more likely that the collision between the 2 vehicles occurred at the point where gouge marks appeared on the road entirely within the east-bound lane of Bribie Island Road that was occupied by Mr Manton.

The trial judge found that Mr Harris breached the duty of care that he owed to Mr Manton, Mr Manton did not breach the duty of care he owed to Mr Harris, and the collision was not caused or contributed to by any negligence of Mr Manton.

The issues on appeal

The grounds of appeal essentially involved interfering with the discretionary findings of credit made by the trial judge in accepting the factual evidence relied on by Mr Manton and rejecting the evidence relied on by Mr Harris. There was a secondary aspect to the appeal that, in failing to accept the witnesses relied on by Mr Harris, the trial judge failed to consider that the impact damage to Mr Harris’ vehicle was consistent with Mr Manton’s vehicle turning right into his path. There was a further ground of appeal in relation to the adequacy of reasons in rejecting the evidence of one of the witnesses called in Mr Harris’ case.

In order to succeed, Mr Harris had to establish that the trial judge erred in fact or law.

The decision on appeal

The Court of Appeal was bound to conduct a real review of the evidence and the trial judge’s reasons to determine whether there was such an error.

The Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed Mr Harris’ appeal and ordered that he pay the costs of the appeal.

While Mr Harris identified an error in the trial judge’s reasons as to the order in which the witnesses’ vehicles were travelling on the day of the accident, the Court of Appeal found that the error was not productive of an error of fact or law as the trial judge correctly and accurately recounted the evidence given by each of those witnesses.

The Court of Appeal found that a real review of the evidence as a whole supported conclusions that the trial judge was correct in concluding that the accounts given by the witnesses called in Mr Manton’s case as to the circumstances of the accident were reliable and accurate, and the accident was caused by Mr Harris’ vehicle crossing the dividing line into the path of Mr Manton’s vehicle.

Implications for you

The matter highlights the difficulties faced in any appeal hearing in establishing that the trial judge erred in fact or law in cases involving issues of credit. The trial judge had the benefit of hearing all of the evidence first hand. While the Court of Appeal must conduct a real review of the evidence, a decision based on findings of credit where the trial judge has had the benefit of hearing all of the evidence will rarely be interfered with.

Harris v Manton & Anor [2020] QCA 241

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