A court ruling that made a wide-load truck driver responsible for an $850k traffic accident injury because he didn’t disobey road rules has been appealed.
Experienced trucker Stephen Ryan was holding his articulated vehicle at traffic lights in a right turning lane at the poorly lit exit of a major NSW highway when a Holden Commodore station wagon struck the rear of his trailer.
The exit lane and the traffic islands were configured in such a way that it was impossible to make the right turn from the exit lane of the Princes Highway into Farnell Ave in Sutherland south of Sydney whilst keeping the rig wholly within the lane.
And the distance from the turn right intersection at which the prime mover had stopped to the rear of the trailer was insufficient to accommodate the vehicle’s full length.
The photograph reproduced – referred to in the judgment– shows the configuration of the traffic lanes. The yellow arrow represents the approximate position of Ryan’s truck while the orange line reflects the path taken by Bradley Stahlhut’s Commodore in the inner of two northbound lanes before the collision and after.
Even after extending the vehicle as far as possible into the available turnoff area, Ryan’s trailer overhung the trafficable area to the rear by 50 cm.
Had the truck driver moved 2-3 m further forward beyond the stop line – and committed an offence in so doing – the rear protrusion of the trailer would have been cleared.
While oversize vehicles are exempted from the requirement to comply with some Australian Road Rules if it is not practicable and while taking reasonable care, this measure was not one to which an exemption applied.
When the motorist’s compensation claim came before the NSW District Court, all parties accepted that the mere fact that such conduct was an offence did not preclude Ryan from being required to do it in order to exercise reasonable care towards other road users.
The court concluded – after a four-day hearing with opposing evidence from several accident reconstruction experts – that Ryan’s failure to move the truck further forward to eliminate the danger posed by the trailer overhang and his failure to illuminate hazard lights to warn following motorists was a breach of his duty.
It ordered Ryan’s CTP insurer to recompense to Stahlhut’s workers’ compensation insurer for the injury compensation funds it had paid out.
The CTP insurer appealed, contending that a reasonable truck driver in Ryan’s position would not have advanced the rig beyond the stop line into the “dark and unfamiliar” intersection to avoid a 50 cm overhang. It would have been dangerous to do so – it argued – and the overhang did not materially contribute to the accident.
Because the trailer was well lit at the rear including with flashing lights and an illuminated “oversize vehicle” sign was clearly visible for at least 100 m distant, following drivers ought – the truck driver’s insurer argued – to have been aware that its presence.
An oversize vehicle in a turning lane “carries with it the possibility that it may extend into the adjoining lane,” so went its argument.
Justice Mark Leeming in the NSW Court of Appeal was inclined to agree – given that the trailer intruded by only 50 cm into the motorist’s lane which was 3.7 m wide – that Ryan was unlikely to have been in breach of his duty.
He decided the appeal in the truck driver’s favour but on different grounds, namely that causation had not been proven.
Justice Leeming with whom the other appeal justices agreed, found that Stahlhut had had ample opportunity to have placed his vehicle into the centre of the northbound lane to avoid the trailer’s encroachment. On that basis, the overhang itself could not have been said to have been a cause of the accident.
Neither was the absence of hazard lights in their view, any material cause.
“It is known that [Stahlhut] failed to [move to the centre] when there were six lights, two of which were flashing, on the trailer,” Justice Leeming wrote in his lead judgment. “Why would it be inferred that a seventh [hazard] light would make any difference?”