Court of Appeal gives ruling on local authorities' duty to repair roads

Insurers received welcome news last week following a Court of Appeal judgment that is expected to curb the number of claims brought against local authorities for slips and trips and road traffic accidents.

The case of Judith Valentine v Transport for London (TfL) clarifies a previously grey area of law relating to the extent of a highway authority’s duty to repair roads under Section 41(1) of the Highways Act 1980.

Until now, local authorities have been inundated by personal injury claims under Section 41. Counsel for the defendant TfL, Adam Weitzman of 7 Bedford Row, explains that this judgment will stem the flow of claims that can be brought.

“Many claims are brought against local authorities for breach of Section 41 – some for damages of less than £1,000 and others for damages into the millions – and as a result of this judgment, there will be some reduction in the level of claims in this area,” he said.

Story behind the case

• Mrs Valentine brought a claim following her husband’s tragic death after his motorcycle skidded on an extensive patch of gravel and loose debris on the surface of the A4.

• She argued that the presence of this material was a breach of the highway authority’s statutory duty under Section 41.

• The first defendant was TfL, the highway authority for the A4. The London Borough of Hounslow was the second defendant, and was responsible for maintaining, inspecting and cleaning the road.

• In the leading judgment, Hughes LJ rejected this argument. He held that the duty to maintain a road under Section 41 did not extend to removing surface-lying material, obstructions or spillages, whether or not they resulted in some danger.

• Instead, the local authorities’ statutory duty to repair was confined to maintaining the structure and fabric of the road. He held that this conclusion was in keeping with the reasoning of Lord Denning in Haydon v Kent CC [1978] 1QB 343 and Lord Hoffman in Goodes v East Sussex CC [2000] 1 WLR 1356.

Why is this case important?

This decision is a welcome clarification and limitation on a highway authority’s statutory duty. Until now, the courts held that duty to maintain roads extended to removing surface-lying material. But it has been ruled that statutory duty to repair is confined to the structure and fabric of the road

Weitzman says: “The Court of Appeal ruling restricts one type of Section 41 claims. As a matter of law, a person can no longer claim for injury resulting from a fall or a road traffic accident caused by loose material on the surface of the highway – including roads, foot paths and pavements.”

“While it has always been clear that disrepair gave rise to a breach of duty under Section 41, the meaning of disrepair was open to interpretation, creating a grey area in this part of the Act. For example, some thought that it might mean loose material on the surface of the road. Yesterday’s judgment has made it clear that this is no longer the situation.”