Should the driver of a vehicle be held liable for the actions of a passenger in the vehicle?
An Uber driver was liable in negligence when his passenger opened his car door into a bike lane causing an accident with a passing cyclist.
The quantum of damages was agreed between the parties on the first day of trial, the predominant issues considered in this liability only trial were:
- Did the defendant have a duty to warn the passenger to not open the door?
- Did the defendant take reasonable steps in response to a foreseeable risk of injury to other road users?
- Did the plaintiff contribute to the accident circumstances by travelling too fast in the circumstances?
The plaintiff, Mr Reynolds, was cycling along Olympic Boulevard in Melbourne on his way home from work. He was located in a designated bicycle lane between stationary traffic on the right-hand side and parked cars on his left-hand side. He had previously slowed due to people exiting the parked cars. The area was congested due to the Australian Open Tennis being on that evening and as a result there were traffic controllers marshalling traffic around Melbourne Park.
An Uber driven by the defendant (Mr Patel) was stationary in congested traffic, when his passenger (Mr Luna) opened the passenger car door into a bike lane and blocked Mr Reynolds path such that he was unable to avoid an accident.
The Decision at trial
The court made a number of factual findings at trial, namely that Mr Patel did not warn Mr Luna that he should not exit the vehicle at that particular location nor did he warn to take care when exiting the vehicle in order to avoid causing harm to himself or other road uses when there was sufficient time to do so and that Mr Patel did not turn on his indicator or hazard lights.
Ultimately, the court in this case found that:
- The duty owed to Reynolds was not a novel duty;
- Mr Patel had access to mirrors and therefore had the best vantage point to assess any sources of danger;
- A reasonable driver in similar circumstances would have turned on the vehicles indicator/hazard lights, warned Mr Luna against exiting at that location and to advise Mr Luna to watch out for cyclists knowing the vehicle was next to the bicycle lane;
- Mr Patel did not take these reasonable steps in response to a foreseeable risk of injury to other road uses; and
- Mr Patel’s failure to do so constituted a breach of his duty of care to Mr Reynolds.
The court was satisfied that the circumstances of this case were such that the risk of injury was created by the driver’s positioning of the vehicle, injury was foreseeable, and there was both time and capacity for the driver to take reasonable action to warn the passenger and cyclist. Such action did not require the driver to control his passenger, but simply to warn to prevent foreseeable risk of injury.
The court held there were no grounds for contributory negligence in the circumstances due to the absence of Mr Patel using an indicator or hazard lights, no evidence that Mr Reynolds was travelling too fast in the circumstances due to the lack of evidence and there was no reason for Mr Reynolds to anticipate a car door would open into the bike path and therefore there was no opportunity for him to brake or swerve to avoid the accident.
Implications for you
This decision establishes the position that a driver’s duty of care to their passengers, in appropriate circumstances, extends to the duty to warn of potential hazards to the passenger and other road users.
This case provides useful guidance as to what a court will take into account when considering if a driver has breached their duty of care, if a driver has taken reasonable steps in response to a foreseeable risk of injury to other road users and what a reasonable person would have done in similar circumstances.
In this case, the Mr Patel could have, but did not, take the necessary steps required to discharge his duty of care as a road user and was found liable for the injuries suffered by the passing cyclist as a result of his passenger ‘s actions.