April 17, 2020
Ryan v Workers Compensation Nominal Insurer (2020) NSWCA 38.
In the hours of darkness, at approximately 6:00am on 30 June 2011, the Appellant (‘Mr Ryan’), was the driver of an articulated truck, stopped at an unbroken marked line (‘stop line’) at a red traffic light with an intention to turn right from Princes Highway onto Farnell Avenue, near Loftus.
He was not familiar with the intersection, having never made that turn before. He had relied upon a specialised heavy vehicle GPS navigation system to direct him.
As Mr Ryan’s vehicle was partially turned at the point of the stop line, the rear left hand side of the trailer protruded into the adjacent lane by no more than 50cm. A common scenario observed on roads even with standard vehicles, particularly at slip lanes.
Mr Stahlhut (employed by the Respondent’s employer) was driving a Holden Commodore. He collided with the rear of Mr Ryan’s truck. Mr Stahlhut had no recollection of the accident.
There was ultimately no dispute that if Mr Stahlhut was travelling in the middle of his traffic lane, he would not have collided with the trailer. However, for reasons not explained due to his lack of recall, he was travelling close to the right hand side of his lane.
The Respondent sought a recovery from the Appellant pursuant to s 151Z(1)(d) of the Workers Compensation Act 1987 (NSW) for workers compensation payments paid to Mr Stahlhut. The damages that would have been payable by Mr Ryan were agreed at $850,000.
District court decision
Acting District Court Judge Curtis found Mr Ryan wholly at fault, with no contributory negligence of Mr Stahlhut, predominantly due to the following:
- As the trailer protruded by such a small amount it constituted a hidden danger;
- Mr Ryan, an experienced truck driver, ought to have driven 2 to 3 metres beyond the stop line at the intersection, so as to avoid his trailer protruding into the through lane; and
- Mr Ryan failed to activate his hazard lights, albeit all other lights, including a rotating beacon light, right hand indicator, and side trailer lights were activated and operational.
court of appeal decision
Justice Leeming held (Payne and White agreeing):
a. It was not reasonable to find that Mr Ryan was obliged to commit an offence by driving three (3) metres beyond the stop line at a red traffic light in contravention of the Road Rules into a dark and unfamiliar intersection;
b.There was no breach of duty in failing to activate his hazard lights, considering the substantial other lighting and visible oversize sign; and
c.The evidence did not support a finding that even if the hazard lights had been activated, Mr Stahlhut would have avoided the collision.
The Court of Appeal was wholly at odds with the trial judge. They confirmed the duty to take reasonable care, not a duty to take all measures to avoid any risk. The trial judge’s finding that Mr Ryan was obliged to drive beyond the stop line was not sustainable.
Proper lighting is always important. In this instance, the evidence of working and illuminated lights along with an oversize sign – both visible for at least 100 metres on approach – were important factors relevant to the matter. In reality, these were not matters in dispute, only that it was contended that Mr Ryan ought to have gone further to activate his hazard lights on the basis he was protruding into the adjacent lane by 1-2 feet.
Driving heavy vehicles is difficult at the best of times.
The trial judge effectively imported a duty that drivers of heavy vehicles are expected to have even greater expertise and knowledge than road engineers when making decisions. In finding no contributory negligence, he conversely also considered other road users need not appreciate the dangers presented by oversize vehicles, especially when turning.
Mr Ryan was an experienced truck driver. Whilst he knew that his trailer was protruding into the through lane (by about 45 to 50cm), he did not consider it appropriate to move beyond a stop line, especially as he was making an unfamiliar right hand turn, in the dark, when the rear and side of his trailer were well lit and marked.
This case again demonstrates an erroneous first instance assessment of breach undertaken prospectively.