Council pays a heavy price after negligence in maintaining cycleways cost a cyclist his career
Getting out on your bike to go cycling, whether to work or for leisure, has numerous benefits – it burns calories, gets your heart pumping, and works your legs and your core. According to Sustrans, custodian of the National Cycle Network, ‘It can also lift your mood, put a smile on your face and improve your general health and wellbeing’ and it can be a powerful attraction for tourists. So it is no surprise that more and more local authorities are implementing a strategy for cycling infrastructure.
‘With any commitment to developing a new cycleway, there also needs to be a long-term commitment to an adequate maintenance programme to prevent unnecessary accidents on these valuable cycle paths,” says Navdip Gill, Personal Injury Partner, who recently represented a brain injury victim in a case against a City Council. The cyclist had suffered a traumatic brain injury after his wheel was trapped in a gap between paving stones, sending him head-first over the handlebars and onto the pavement.
A council’s duty to cyclists
Most public pavements are the responsibility of the local authority which has a legal duty under the Highways Act 1980 to have an adequate inspection regime in place to ensure that they are safe. Sometimes this is outsourced to a private company; and in this instance, the City Council had contracted their highways maintenance work to an external contractor.
Ensuring a public highway is safe involves regularly inspecting the pavements (usually at least every six months), dealing with any hazard found promptly, and erecting clear warning signs until any danger is dealt with.
If there is a failure in this duty and someone is hurt as a result, then they are entitled to bring a claim for compensation against the local authority (who would then try and recover their costs from any outsourced contractor).
What happened to this cyclist?
In this particular case, which occurred in 2018, the cyclist was riding along a dedicated off-road path for cyclists and pedestrians built from concrete paving stones in the city centre, when his front wheel dropped into a gap between two raised pavers. The gap was 50mm wide, while his front wheel was just 24mm wide, and consequently his bike dropped into the gap as he rode along.
This gap trapped the bicycle, bringing it to an abrupt halt and pitching the cyclist over the front of his bike and head-first onto the pavement. He had not been wearing a helmet and the impact was such that he lost consciousness for around forty minutes. A pedestrian noticed the man lying on the ground and reported this to the police who found him and called an ambulance.
The 36-year-old cyclist was in a coma for three weeks. Due to bleeding on the brain, he required surgery to remove part of his skull which was later replaced with a plate. Despite rehabilitation care at The Oakleaf Brain Injury Care Centre, these life-changing head injuries (classed as a major trauma) have left him with headaches, fatigue, memory loss, impaired vision and problems with concentration.
How did Geoffrey Leaver Solicitors help?
When the cyclist first came to see Navdip Gill, the case did not look promising because he had no memory of the accident and there were no eye witnesses.
Local authorities typically rely on a ‘Section 58 defence’ where they try to deny liability if they can prove they had a reasonable maintenance system in place, that there has been no prior mishaps or complaints in that spot, and that repairs were made in a timely fashion.
Not one to be put off by a big challenge, Navdip undertook some detective work, and after engaging the help of medical experts, was able to piece together what had happened. Fortunately, a couple of days after the accident, a friend of the cyclist had visited the site of the accident to see what might have happened and to take photographs which provided key evidence.
Had the highway been maintained?
Geoffrey Leaver Solicitors demonstrated that the injury (and the losses that arose as a result) had been caused by a breach of the council’s statutory duty and negligence on their part – albeit by their contracting agent – in the shape of numerous failures to comply with their own maintenance codes of practice or to have regard to public safety.
The gap between the concrete slabs had been recorded since at least July 2012, when it had measured 26mm wide, and the gap had increased to 50mm by May 2018.
The code in this city dictated that public paths needed to be walked by the maintenance team every four months to fulfil a safety inspection. However, even though this gap had long presented an obvious risk to cyclists, prams, wheelchair users or anyone with a mobility aid, highway inspectors were not trained to look for such a defect. And curiously, as the paving slabs were not cracked or broken, the defect-reporting system used by the maintenance team did not provide a code which ensured that this would be recognised as a hazard in need of maintenance.
Despite the fact that the defect had been present since July 2012, it was not identified as a hazard by the contractor until the end of October 2018 – several months after the accident – and was finally repaired the following week.
Did the lack of a helmet cause the injuries?
Insurers will often attempt to deny liability in cycling accidents where the cyclist was not wearing a helmet.
However, under current UK law there is no legal requirement for helmets to be worn and there is also a lack of consensus among experts as to whether wearing a helmet will always reduce the risk of serious injury being suffered.
A review of published research on this issue (carried out by our own expert) suggests that helmets are only effective in preventing or reducing the severity of injuries which are sustained in a low-speed accident, and that they have little or no effect in reducing certain types of severe head injuries, including skull fractures, frontal contusions and generalised brain swelling.
In this case, our neurosurgeon and helmet expert showed that if the bike had been travelling at 12 mph or more (which was likely), before the cyclist fell and his head hit the concrete, a cycling helmet would have made very little difference to his injuries.
Did the City Council admit liability?
Eventually, the City Council admitted its failings just before the case was due to be heard in the High Court, and now the High Court has to determine how much compensation will be due to the cyclist from the City Council.
Prior to the accident, our client had worked as an HGV driver delivering aviation fuel – so was well paid, earning more than twice the national average salary in the UK. His earning capacity was severely curtailed by the accident, as his reduced vision and concentration problems meant he can no longer drive long distances. He now works in a factory earning a fraction of his previous income. His injuries also meant that he had to give up rugby, and his condition means that he could be at risk of developing early dementia.
‘As is often the case with a serious cycling accident, injuries can be long-lasting and life changing. The compensation claim will be substantial, but will never restore the life that this man once had,’ says Navdip Gill.
To find out more about how our personal injury team may be able to help you claim compensation following an accident that was not your fault, please contact Navdip Gill on 01908 689338 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a free and no obligation initial consultation.
This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.