Over the last 20 years we have seen quite an increase in the number of cyclists in the UK. Councils up and down the country have spent millions of pounds on cycle paths and other similar health improvement strategies. While not for everybody, many people now cycle to work as well as cycling for leisure in their spare time. This has brought about a number of challenges for the legal profession as well as a growing number of personal injury claims in favour of and against cyclists.
While contrary to popular belief, it is illegal to ride a cycle on a pedestrian pavement unless it is a designated cycle path. The Highway Code simply states “you must not cycle on a pavement” with a potential fine of up to £500 or more likely a spot fine of around £50. In some areas of the country police do not enforce this law which has led some people to believe it is acceptable. The situation is obviously different with regards to public highways as well as cycle paths although cyclists still need to be careful.
Even though cyclists do not pay a direct road tax they are well within their rights to use UK highways as much as motor vehicles or lorry drivers. However, with this right to use public highways comes the legal obligation to ensure the safe well-being of pedestrians and drivers in their vicinity.
The Yoga Teacher And The Cyclist
Over the last week there has been much media coverage with regards to a personal injury claim brought by a yoga teacher against a cyclist. The background to the claim (from an incident in London in 2015) seemed relatively straightforward; the cyclist hit the pedestrian as she crossed the road. The pedestrian and the cyclists were both knocked unconscious with the pedestrian suffering a minor head injury while the cyclist received cuts and bruises. However, this claim is not as straightforward as it looks at the outset!
Obligation Of Pedestrians
As cyclists and drivers have an obligation to ensure the well-being of those around them so there is a similar obligation on pedestrians. This particular case, involving a yoga teacher by the name of Gemma Brushett and a cyclist by the name of Robert Hazeldean, has confused and angered many people.
A four-year court battle
This claim has been ongoing for four years now with much haggling and discussion of the finer details of the incident. Despite the fact that lawyers acting for Gemma Brushett initially claimed she had little or no recollection of the incident, due to her injuries, there were a number of eyewitnesses to the incident. Three of the four eyewitnesses who stepped forward confirmed that Gemma Brushett was using her phone at the time and “not looking where she was going”. There was a further witness who stepped forward to suggest that the cyclist was “arrogant and reckless” but even the judge refuted the allegation against the cyclist. Indeed, the judge went as far as to describe him as a “courteous and mild-mannered…..calm and reasonable road user”. So how was there a case to answer?
Despite the fact the court accepted that the claimant was using her phone at the time (and not totally aware of her surroundings) the cyclist was found partially liable. As a consequence, the cyclist must pay damages of £4,161.79 to Gemma Brushett – which is 50% of the total compensation awarded. However, when taking into account additional costs and legal fees it is believed that Robert Hazeldean will need to pay out up to £20,000 (although there is speculation this could reach a staggering £100,000). He has already publicly declared this will bankrupt him.
How was the cyclist partially liable?
The details of the incident had been accepted by the court and formed the basis of the legal ruling. While Robert Hazeldean sounded his cycle horn and swerved to avoid the yoga teacher, it is also worth noting that the traffic lights at the time were on green. As a consequence, Robert Hazeldean was perfectly entitled to move forward in the rush hour traffic. The court also confirmed that at the last minute Gemma Brushett realised the potential for an accident and tried to retrace her steps towards a traffic island. Confusion and limited time to react meant that Robert Hazeldean inadvertently swerved and hit Gemma Brushett with both parties suffering injuries.
The judge claimed that:-
- Cyclists must be prepared at all times for people to behave in unexpected ways
- Mr Hazeldean did fall below the levels to be expected of a reasonably competent cyclist in that he did proceed when the road was not completely clear
If the cyclist has been held partially responsible, together with the pedestrian, then why has the cyclist not got a claim against the pedestrian? If the actions of the pedestrian caused the cyclist to swerve in a wild and erratic manner, causing injury, where is the balance of the case?
Legal Protection For Cyclists
In order to give a degree of balance to this article it is worth noting that many cyclists have been successful in pursuing their own cycling injury compensation claims. These include issues such as:-
Potholes in the road
It is safe to say that large potholes in a road can cause damage to any vehicle but can often cause serious injuries to a cyclist. We have seen many instances of cyclists taking local authorities to court due to accidents caused by badly maintained highways. Local authorities have a legal obligation to maintain and repair roads where there are potholes and other potentially dangerous defects. How these defects/potholes are reported and recorded is very important when it comes to compensation claims.
Local authorities, and the highways department, carry out regular inspections of roads under their control. In the event that potholes and other defects are recorded they will need to be repaired in a “reasonable timescale”. Where the repair may be delayed the appropriate warning signs may need to be displayed or diversions organised where applicable. In the event that the local authority/highways department were made aware of potentially hazardous road defects and took no action they may well be liable in the event of any injuries caused. If there was insufficient time between the reporting of the road defect and the opportunity to carryout repairs, there may be an argument for reduced liability or in some cases have the compensation claim dismissed.
Tram tracks in Edinburgh
There is currently a personal injury claim going through the courts against Edinburgh City Council and Edinburgh Trams regarding a cycling accident allegedly as a consequence of the tram tracks. In many areas of Edinburgh the roadwork system criss-crosses with the tram tracks with cycling also encouraged in the city centre. This particular claim saw the cyclist in question flung from her bike when her back wheel became caught in the tram tracks. This incident occurred during a relatively busy period and while the nurse escaped with a black eye and knee/chin injuries it could have been so much worse.
Interestingly, the claimant was originally suing for £50,000 in damages but this figure has been changed after negotiations with the defendants (they won’t confirm the figure of reasons for the change). So, while the defendants have so far accepted no responsibility for the incident they have already agreed a potential settlement depending on the court ruling. Edinburgh City Council and Edinburgh Trams have from day one maintained that they fulfilled “all duties of reasonable care”. It will be interesting to see how this particular case develops because it does have potentially major implications for inner-city tram networks. Indeed there are a further 39 similar historic claims on hold pending a ruling on the current court action.
Cycling associations up and down the UK have long been advising their members to take out the relevant insurance in case of accidents and injuries. Indeed many associations will offer third-party insurance as part of their membership fee thereby ensuring that all members are protected. As the number of cyclists in the UK continues to grow it seems almost inevitable that third-party insurance will be a legal obligation at some point in the not too distant future.
While many accidents involving cyclists are fairly open and shut cases, the headline grabbing yoga teacher v cyclist court ruling has caused shock and surprise not only amongst the cycling fraternity but the wider public as well. Despite the fact that the lady in question was distracted when using a mobile phone, stepped out onto a street where the traffic light was on green and allegedly moved erratically to avoid injury, the cyclist was still deemed partially responsible. It was interesting to see a lack of comment regarding criminal action against the cyclist, with a suggestion he may not have been found guilty of any criminal offence.
The ruling in favour of Gemma Brushett would suggest that cyclists such as Robert Hazeldean are legally obliged to “expect the unexpected” when cycling on UK roads. The fact this case has taken four years to arrive at a ruling does reflect the complex legal nature of the claim. It does also expose an array of grey areas regarding the legal obligations and the legal protection afforded to cyclists in the UK. Should they really be legally obliged to expect the unexpected?