Farah v Abdullahi: a careful analysis of causation in road traffic accidents

An horrendous sequence of events left the claimant with a serious brain injury and the first defendant on a charge of attempted murder. He had twice deliberately driven at the claimant, first forcing him onto another car and second pushing him 30 metres along the road surface at around 20 miles per hour. In between these attacks, the claimant was thrown from the bonnet of the other car as it was driven off. The High Court decision of 8 April 2020 deals with attribution of his injuries across the incident as a whole and whether there were breaks in the chain of causation.

The incident had taken place in the early hours of the morning and followed some form of altercation between several young men. Neither driver took part in the civil proceedings, which largely involved the claimant and the two motor insurers, each of which was operating as Article 75 insurer. The parties agreed that there were four phases of the incident, being:

  1. the initial driving of the first car, a Fiesta, at the claimant who took evasive action
  2. the claimant being forced onto the second, a Mercedes, which drove off
  3. the claimant being thrown from the Mercedes when it braked, and
  4. the driver of the Fiesta then running him over and pushing him around 30 metres along the road.

The judge had first to establish as matters of fact and with the benefit of all the evidence in which phase or phases the claimant’s lacerations, orthopaedic and brain injuries had been sustained. He then needed to examine issues of causation with regard to the actions of both drivers. Linden J’s careful and lengthy judgment was handed down virtually (under the COVID-19 protocol) on 8 April although the hearing itself had taken place normally over eight days in the last two weeks of February.

After detailed consideration of the reconstruction and medical evidence, Linden J held that the claimant had sustained a broken tibia during phase 1, no injuries at phase 2, a fractured vertebra in phase 3 and serious brain injuries and lacerations in phase 4. The critical issue for both insurers concerned was how the doctrine of supervening causative acts (novus actus interveniens) might apply through the phases of the incident.

The judge found that phase 1 arose out of the actions of Fiesta driver, the first defendant, and phases 2 & 3 from those of the Mercedes driver. However, he held that there was no break in the chain of legal causation from phase 1, because “the context for the first defendant’s actions was an altercation in the small hours of the morning involving hot headed young men who had been drinking. The way in which the driver of the Mercedes sought to remove the claimant therefore cannot be regarded as a totally unexpected “folly” … Accordingly, I consider that the first defendant was responsible for the injuries to the claimant sustained in phase 3 and that it is fair that he should be held liable for those injuries. The driving of the Mercedes did not eclipse or obliterate the actions of the first defendant…”

He then examined the novus actus point as between phases 3 and 4, although the question was perhaps not as pivotal as it might have been had he found (as the insurers of the Fiesta driver had argued) that the brain injury was caused at phase 3 and had he found that there was a break in the chain between phases 1 & 3. Despite the actions of the Mercedes driver leading to the claimant falling from the car and lying in the road where he was exposed to further foreseeable injury “it was entirely unexpected that a motorist would act as the first defendant acted in phase 4 … the actions of the first defendant in phase 4 should be regarded as separate to what went before, in phases 2 and 3, and that the events in these phases were rendered historic, eclipsed and/or obliterated by the events in phase 4.”

In this way although the chain of causation was broken as between phases 3 & 4 that would be of little practical help to the insurers of the Fiesta because its driver was clearly responsible for phase 4 and had already been held to have caused the injuries arising during the unbroken chain from 1-3.

This summary of the decision glosses over a good deal of the evidential disputes and gaps which the judge necessarily had to resolve. Although the judgment runs to 53 pages even just skim-reading it will provide an insight into the painstaking approach he adopted when considering the extensive expert, police and lay evidence associated with the case.


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Written by Alistair Kinley, director of policy and government affairs at BLM

alistair.kinley@blmlaw.com

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