Rothwell v Motor Insurer’s Bureau of Ireland

Judgment Date24 February 2003
Date24 February 2003
Docket Number252/01
CourtSupreme Court


Murray J.

Hardiman J.

Geoghegan J.



Road traffic accident - Insurance - Liability of Motor Insurer’s Bureau of Ireland - Oil spillage on road - Identity of driver causing spillage unknown - Whether evidence of negligence - Whether maxim res ipsa loquitur applies - Whether damages recoverable.

the plaintiff crashed when his car skidded on oil that had been spilled on the road. He alleged that the spillage was as a result of the negligence of an untraced driver and that the defendant was liable as a result. He pleaded, inter alia, that the maxim res ipsa loquitur applied so that there was no onus on him to prove that the accident had been caused by negligence of the untraced driver. The High Court (McCracken J), in finding for the plaintiff, held that the intention of the 1988 agreement between the defendant and the Minister for the Environment was that a plaintiff should not be denied compensation if he could not prove that the untraced driver could have no defence when he would not have such a burden of proof if the identity of the driver or vehicle were known. The defendant appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

Held by Hardiman J, delivering the judgment of the court, in allowing the appeal that negligence in the driving of an unknown vehicle by an untraced driver was a condition precedent to a finding of liability against the defendant under the MIBI agreement. As there was no proof of such negligence the onus of proof had not shifted to the defendant to disprove that the accident was caused by negligence of an untraced driver under the maxim res ipsa loquitur.


JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice Hardiman delivered the 24th day of February, 2003


On the 6th November, 1995 the plaintiff was involved in an accident while driving his BMW motorcar on the public road near a place called Daly’s Cross, Co. Limerick. He says the accident was caused by a spillage of oil on to the road which made it slippy and caused him to lose control over his car, leave the correct carriageway, and strike an oncoming vehicle. The specific cause of the accident was pleaded as follows in the Statement of Claim:


A vehicle the owner and/or user of which remains unidentified and/or untraced was driven on the public highway at or near Daly’s Cross in the County of Limerick in such a manner that oil was caused to leak and/or to spill on to the carriageway giving rise to a dangerous and slippery surface”.


On that basis, it is alleged:


“The said collision and the plaintiffs said personal injuries loss damage and expense were caused as a result of the negligence and breach of duty including breach of statutory duty of the owner and/or user of the aforementioned vehicle (which said owner and/or user remain unidentified and/or untraced)”.


The defendant has sued pursuant to the provisions of an agreement dated the 21st December, 1998 and made between the Minister for the


Environment on the one part and the defendant on the other (“The MIBI Agreement”).


The evidence.


The relevant evidence is that of Garda Laing who came to the scene of the accident and of an engineer, Mr. Buckley.


Garda Laing said that he attended the scene and found both vehicles stationery on the plaintiffs incorrect side. He saw that there was oil on the roadway, on the left hand carriageway as one goes towards Annagh. He said that this oil was a slick about 50ft long. It had a tinge of “red and bluey colour of oil on the roadway, maybe diesel oil…, it wasn’t motor oil anyhow”. He said he noticed no smell from the substance and concluded that “it wasn’t petrol”. He could not say whether it was a non motor oil. He did not check as to whether there was any other oil spilled beyond the 50ft length of the slick he observed. He agreed that it might have spread to some limited extent through “the flow of the land or whatever”.


The engineer, Mr. Buckley, said he was a consulting automotive engineer and assessor and was an associate of the Institute of Automobile Engineer Assessors. He was retained by the Plaintiff on the opening day


of the trial to listen to the evidence and to use his expertise in relation to motor vehicles and how they operate for the assistance of the Court. He was asked to assume that the substance on the road was petrol or diesel. He recalled that the substance was blue and red, which he said indicated that the substance had been mixed with water. He was categorical that the substance was not engine oil, in which case it would be black. He said his enquiries had given him dimensions of about 50ft by l0ft for the slick on the road. He said this did not assist quantifying the quantity of oil involved because a small amount of oil once mixed with water would spread over the dimensions in question. He said “.… Piecing this together, you are probably talking in the region of a couple of pints of oil, rather than large quantities”.


On the assumption that there was no oil other than the slick in the location he believed “We are talking about a single spill”. He believed the source of the spill to be a lorry or truck because “in a car you have got a long nozzle going down to a lower tank so you don’t get spills out of that…”. In a “lorry diesel tank” on the other hand “there is no neck of any significance in these tanks and they would carry anything up to 100 gallons of diesel”. He then said:


“To get a single spill of fluid, it is potentially possible, I think if the diesel cap were left off with the slushing of the vehicle going on


the road, you would get a spill. Why would you get a single spill then, as against a continuous spill? Well it would be a sudden movement of the vehicle or an acceleration or braking which would cause the movement of fuel. You may not get that in any other point on the road, you may have to brake at that point for some particular reason and it can spill out”.


He then agreed that the tank would require to be quite full for this to happen and, more significantly, that it would be necessary for the cap to be left off He agreed that this hypothesis would not occur if the correct cap were fitted and was on properly. Accordingly, he said:


“So it would have to be a couple of things like: incorrect cap, which fell off the correct cap that was not put on properly or the correct cap that was taken unknown to the driver”.


He was then asked


“That happens?” and relied “Yes. So that would be on that scenario”. He went on to discuss, and to effectively dismiss, the possibility of a leak from the hoses of an oil tanker. He concluded:


“So I would suggest the probability is a spill from a diesel tank would be the most likely explanation…. everything else seems to give you a longer spread or a greater quantity and the vehicle having to be stopped”.


In cross-examination he agreed that it was common for fuel depot staff to fill the tank and put the top back on. He agreed that that might be hard for the driver to observe — it would appear to be on but it might not be on fully. He said that the question of whether this would give rise to a single leak or spills or a number of them would “all depend on the severity of the acceleration and the amount of fuel in the tank at the time. Also the gradient of the road”. There were, he agreed, a lot of imponderables.


In further cross-examination he agreed that there were a number of other industrial compounds capable of accounting for the slick, including “other industrial petroleum products that might not be used for driving vehicles”. He said that kerosene would be another thing that would give you the same effect. Kerosene would, in being transported on the road, be in a bulk tank container. His evidence, however, assumed that the substance was petrol or diesel.


He agreed that if tanker were stopped for some time in a particular place there might be a drip from it. These drips could accumulate and their movement then would depend on the gradient. This hypothesis required not only a leak, but the tanker to be stopped and he wondered why it would stop at that particular point. This, he said “has to be


considered, it is just thrown into the pot”. He also agreed that a spill might happen if somebody was trying to pour fuel into a vehicle which had run out of it, without a funnel.


High Court Findings.


The learned High Court judge held as follows in relation to the source of the oil:


“While the origin of this spillage is unknown, I have had the benefit of evidence from Mr. Edmund Buckley, a motor assessor and I accept his evidence as being expert evidence on the topic. I accept his evidence that the spillage itself was probably quite small, being limited to a couple of pints, and that, because it was an isolated patch of oil, it is most unlikely that it was caused by any form of leakage, for example, from an oil tanker. As the whole basis of the plaintiffs claim is that the spillage was caused by a person and a vehicle unknown, I can only make a finding on the balance of probabilities of the evidence before me. I think the most likely and probable cause of this spillage was a truck or lorry on which the cap or cover of the fuel tank was either missing, defective or not properly fitted. In such circumstances, particularly if the cap were missing and the tank was reasonably full, a spillage


such as this could easily take place if there was a sudden movement by the vehicle, such as a sudden braking”.


The learned trial judge then held that that state of fact could occur either with or without negligence on the part of the driver of the vehicle. He said:


“In the present case, there is no way of knowing what happened. There was evidence which enabled the Court to find on a balance of...

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