Blameless Accidents – where drivers are not at fault

PUBLISHED 12 Aug 2015

The District Court of New South Wales recently provided some guidance on the ‘blameless motor accident’ provisions of the Motor Accidents Compensation Act 1999 (NSW) (hereafter the ‘Act) in the case of ‘Garry Connaughton v Pacific Rail Engineering Pty Ltd [2015] NSWDC 89’ involving a driver injured in a single vehicle accident.

On 13 July 2011, the plaintiff, Garry Connaughton, was driving a truck along Mount Ousley Road when heavy winds caused a tree to fall on the cabin of his truck and trap the driver by compression. No other vehicles were involved in the collision. The plaintiff sued the owner of the truck, Pacific Rail Engineering Pty Ltd claiming that the accident was a blameless motor accident within the scope of the Act.

Section 7A of the Act defines a ‘blameless motor accident as’:

A motor accident not caused by the fault of the owner or driver of any motor vehicle involved in the accident in the use or operation of the vehicle and not caused by the fault of any other person.

In the decision, Judge Norton considered the application of the blameless motor accident provisions. In her reasoning, her Honour addressed four questions:

1.    Do blameless accidents have to pass through section 3A?

2.    Was there a motor vehicle accident?

3.    If so, was it a blameless accident?

4.    Is the plaintiff excluded from recovery under section 7E?

In relation to section 3A, her Honour found that section 3A did not apply to blameless accidents as the provision dealt with ‘fault’ – an element that is not present in blameless accidents.

In determining whether a motor vehicle accident occurred, the plaintiff and the defendants disagreed over whether the tree falling on the truck constituted a motor vehicle accident. Her Honour deconstructed the wording of section 3 to find that there was “a collision…with the vehicle” when the tree struck the truck, satisfying the definition. Her Honour noted that there was no requirement in the wording that the injury be caused by the driving.

In determining whether the accident was a blameless accident, her Honour had to determine whether the injury was caused during the driving but not by any negligence of the owner, driver, or any other person in accordance with section 7A. The defendant argued that the blameless accident provisions were never intended to apply where the driver of a motor vehicle collided with an inanimate object. The defendant further argued in their defence that the plaintiff could only name the owner as the defendant because of statutory agency and that this option would not be available where the driver was also the owner of the car. Her Honour rejected these arguments. She held that owner/driver’s in single car accidents could name an insurance company as the defendant and found that the defendant’s construction of the provision would render section 7E unnecessary.

In relation to section 7E, the defendant argued that the driver was not entitled to recover damages as the accident was caused by the act of the driver, the act being that of driving. Her Honour rejected this and held that the plaintiff driving was a mere background fact rather than an act of the plaintiff that could be said to have caused the accident. Her Honour concluded that the wording of section 7E was not intended to deem all drivers in single vehicle accidents to be the cause of the accident.

Her Honour concluded that the accident was a blameless accident and that the plaintiff was not a driver who caused an accident. A verdict for the plaintiff was granted.

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