Ruling In Case Of Paralysed Mountain Biker Raises Questions On Liability


The Law Of... establishing liability for an accident

A High Court has passed a ruling on liability after a Solicitor was paralysed during a beginners' mountain biking course over four years ago.

Paralysed Mountain Biker Wins Right To Sue Instructor

After a lengthy legal battle, in which the course instructor denied liability, a ruling has been passed in favour of the man who suffered a serious injury that has confined him to a wheelchair since his accident.

Discussing the ruling, David Erwin – Partner on Simpson Millar's Serious Injury team – answers some of the key questions that could arise after the High Court ruling.

How Did The Accident Happen?

The injured Solicitor was physically active before his accident, visiting the gym three to four times a week and playing cricket at the weekend.

He looked to extend his sporting activities to mountain biking, as he had owned a bike for 12 years but was still a novice on rough terrain; he signed up to a beginners' mountain biking course, which cost £79 for six hours of tuition.

Starting in Holmbury St. Mary in Surrey in March 2012, the training session eventually saw the man in question cycle up Holmbury Hill. It was at Holmbury Hill that an injury was suffered, as the novice rider descended a steep track – purpose built for mountain biking – known as 'Barry Knows Best', where his front wheel jammed in a grassy mound and he was sent over his handlebars; which caused serious spinal damage that resulted in partial paralysis.

Why Was The Instructor Deemed Liable?

One of the overriding reactions to the verdict from the High Court is a claim that the man who suffered an injury should have been responsible for his own actions and should have known that there was an element of danger involved in mountain biking.

Add to this the fact that the accident was caused by a wheel becoming jammed on a grassy mound and many commenters have questioned the reason that the class instructor has been found liable for the accident.

However, as David explains, the ruling from the High Court shows that every case is different and that liability can often fall on a responsibility of a party to recognise that an accident could occur and failing to stop harm being caused:

"The ruling from the High Court has been met by some confusion, however the judge was clear in his assertion that the mountain bike instructor had failed in his duty to carry out tuition with reasonable skill and care so that the man under his instruction could ride down the slope in question with reasonable safety."

"It was also claimed that the instructor failed to carry out an adequate assessment of participants' individual skill at the start of the lesson, meaning he was unaware of attendees' capabilities when he lead them on a route that included a difficult-to-navigate section of track, such as that at Holmbury Hill."

"In his ruling, the judge did concede that the injured party should take some responsibility for the accident, but as the instructor was 80% to blame, the Solicitor should be eligible for a compensation award."

"Ultimately though, it seems that this accident was wholly avoidable, as if the instructor had evaluated the skill level of participants then he could have avoided the steep portion of the course, or at least given clearer and closer guidance while navigating the dangerous portion of the course."

What Compensation Could The Solicitor Receive?

The ruling from the High Court simply establishes liability, meaning that the compensation amount is still to be negotiated; reports suggest that if a settlement is reached it is likely that the amount payable could be in the region of £3 million.

Damages for compensation are divided into general and special damages, broadly defined as follows:

    • General damages:
      This includes physical and psychological pain, suffering and lowered quality of life, legally termed loss of amenity.

      In this case, general damages would consider the fact that the man in question will be severely disabled for the rest of his life, taking into consideration a lowered quality of life for decades to come.

  • Special damages:
    These are linked to the direct loss of money and earnings caused by an injury, whether this is through a loss of current and future earnings and/or the cost of rehabilitation and treatment.

    In the Solicitor's case, special damages would cover any effect on his salary after his accident and would include any expenses he incurred during rehabilitation.

In some instances, interim payments can be secured while a case is ongoing, these interim payments allow for any immediate expenses to be covered, so that the injured person can receive the best possible care immediately after their accident; interim payments can be used to secure improved private rehabilitation, which can significantly improve recovery.

Discussing compensation amounts, and how claims can help those who have suffered a serious injury, David said:

"In this instance, there has been a serious effect on quality of life and it is unlikely that the Solicitor will ever recover to a point that is even comparable to his condition before his accident."

"The complications associated with paralysis, including expensive and lengthy rehabilitation sessions and a permanent effect on quality of life, will be considered when a settlement figure is discussed."

"Of course, no amount of money will fix the paralysis, but an award could help him adapt and should help him put in place measures that could make it easier to live with paralysis day to day."

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