Red light or orange light – who was telling the truth about the traffic light and right of way?

11 October 2022

In this case the court was required to determine whether the plaintiff’s vehicle ran through a red light or whether the defendant was negligent in turning across the plaintiff’s path. Based on the available evidence including witness accounts, the court found the defendant to be negligent but also found the plaintiff guilty of contributory negligence at 50% for running a red light.

In issue

  • This case involved a claim for damages arising out of a motor vehicle accident. Liability was in dispute and the court was required to determine whether the plaintiff’s vehicle ran through a red light (which he denied) or whether the defendant was negligent in failing to avoid a collision with the plaintiff’s vehicle as he was turning across the plaintiff’s path. The court also considered issues of contributory negligence and quantum of the claim.

The background

The plaintiff claimed damages under the Motor Accident Injuries Act 2017 (NSW) for injuries arising from a motor vehicle accident on 15 December 2017. The accident occurred at an intersection with traffic lights. The defendant’s truck was in the process of making a right turn into another road when the plaintiff’s vehicle drove through the intersection and collided with the defendant’s truck.

The plaintiff sustained severe injuries including a traumatic brain injury. The defendant accepted that the plaintiff will not be able to work again, and there was little dispute regarding quantum. However, the defendant denied liability and argued that the plaintiff drove through a red light. On the other hand, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant was negligent by failing, in effect, to execute a safe right hand turn, in a way which would have avoided collision with the plaintiff’s vehicle.

Both parties relied on expert reports regarding a reconstruction of the circumstances of the accident. There was also an extensive police investigation which included several witnesses to the accident.

The matter proceeded to a hearing before Abadee DCJ in the District Court of NSW. The court was required to determine the following issues:

  1. Whether the defendant breached his duty of care;
  2. If the defendant was found to have breached his duty of care, whether the plaintiff was guilty of contributory negligence and if so, to what extent;
  3. The quantum of the claim which included damages for non-economic loss, past loss of earning capacity, past loss of superannuation, future loss of earning capacity (including an allowance for vicissitudes), loss of long service leave (including an allowance for vicissitudes), and the cost of funds management.

The decision at trial

The court made the following findings:

  1. The defendant breached his duty of care by failing to keep a proper lookout when attempting to turn his truck.
  2. The plaintiff drove through the intersection when the light just turned red and was therefore guilty of contributory negligence.
  3. By choosing to drive through the red light, the plaintiff willingly chose to drive faster than the defendant’s vehicle and had less control in terms of taking evasive action prior to the point of impact. The appropriate deduction for contributory negligence was 50%.
  4. After the deduction for contributory negligence, the plaintiff was awarded damages in the sum of $988,703 plus funds management and costs.

Implications for you

The case reiterates the principle that driving through a red light will almost always result in a finding of substantial contributory negligence. In cases involving collisions at traffic light intersections and where there are conflicting versions, it is essential to obtain documents from relevant authorities such as the police and transport department (particularly for the traffic signal phasing report) early to explore whether the issue of liability can be negotiated between the parties without the expense of going to trial. This may assist in resolving a claim early particularly where there is little dispute in relation to its quantum.

Osman By His Tutor Osman v Clement [2022] NSWDC 385

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