Case Between Road Traffic Authority of New South Wales and Dederer

Published: 2021-07-20
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Harvey Mudd College
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The case between Road Traffic Authority (RTA) of New South Wales and Dederer is arguably one of the most controversial trials in Australia. Apart from its intertwined facts, it is imperative to note that the case was heard in all the three courts on the land: Trial, High, and Appeal Courts. Mr. Philip Dederer, aged 14 years old, was suing the Road and Traffic Authority (RTA) and the Great Lakes Shire Council (the Council) for negligence after he dived off a bridge, suffered injuries, and became paraplegic. In the case, the accuser opined that the Road and Traffic Authority (RTA) had failed in its mandate of maintaining the bridge. According to Mr. Dederer, had the accused not used horizontal bars on the bridge, then he would not have jumped and suffered injuries. In its defense, the Road Traffic Authority emphasized that it had erected pictorial and texts signs instructing road users not to jump. Therefore, RTA insisted that it was not liable for actions of any individual who disregarded warnings and voluntarily dived from a bridge. The case was tabled in the Trial Court, the Court of Appeal, and finally in the High Court. The two lower cases found both defendants guilty of negligence for failing in their duties of protecting citizens. However, the High Court decision overruled the findings of the Supreme Court and Court Appeal. The court referred to Wyong Shire Council v- Vairy (2005) 223 CLR 422 to rule that the RTA had made reasonable efforts to prevent the risk of injury. This paper will analyze the facts, the arguments, and the judgment of the case Roads and Traffic Authority of NSW- v- Dederer (2007). While arguing in favor of the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA), this essay holds that the primary criterion of accessing negligence should be reasonableness of efforts not stringency in the prevention of injury.

Facts of the Case

On December 31, 1998, a 14-year-old, Mr. Philip Dederer dived from a bridge that connected the towns of Tuncurry and Forster in the New South Wales. Unfortunately, while diving, the water tides suddenly shifted causing Dederer to strike his head on the estuary bed, sustaining injuries that made him paraplegic. The victim sued the Road and Traffic Authority (RTA) and the Great Lakes Shire Council for negligence claiming that the two had failed in their duty of maintaining the bridge to prevent injury. While the first defendant was responsible for the erection and management of the bridge, the second managed the daily activities unfolding on the bridge.

The bridges footpath had a 1.2 m high wooden post and two horizontal wooden-bars and some wires. These parallel bars made it easy for children and young people to climb to the top railing that was about 9m from the surface of the waters (Hemming, 2007). Since 1959, when the bridge was erected, the spot became a renowned place for tourist and party lovers who came to jump or witness others dive off the rail (Hemming, 2007). Although no accident had been reported for years, the Roads and Traffic Authority understood the potential dangers and thus erected pictograph signs on and at the approaches of the bridge prohibiting climbing and jumping off the bridge. After noticing that people still dived, the Authority replaced the pictographs with word signage No diving. All attempts to prevent diving off the bridge, including collaborating with the police, proved futile.

Since Dederer was a small child, he had spent numerous holidays in Forster and had witnessed as children, and young adults jumped off the bridge into the estuary. He was aware of the tidal action that occurred in that part of the beach. He understood that the depth of the water changed suddenly, especially at the edge of the sandbar. Although Dederer claimed that the water was intense, he admitted it was hard to judge the actual depth due to tides. Dederer was aware of the pictographs and word signs that banned diving off the bridge, but the scenery lured him into action. Upon jumping, Dederer hit his head on the estuary bed and was rendered paraplegic.

The Issues Raised By the Plaintiff and Defendant

The plaintiff filed a case against the Roads and Traffic Authority under the tort of negligence. (Barker et al., 2012). The latter is a legal action that can be filed against a defendant who had a moral responsibility to defend the plaintiff. In the case, The Roads Traffic Authority v- Dederer (2007), the plaintiff held that the defendant had failed in its duty to protect the citizens from harm. Notably, it was the responsibility of the authority to erect and maintain the bridge. As the tort of negligence states, the plaintiff had to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that:

i) A defendant had a duty of care before or during an act that resulted in harm.

ii) The accused breached the duty of care or failed to conform to the standards of care thus leading to harm.

iii) The damage caused to the plaintiff due to negligence is of substantial degree and cannot be ignored.

Mr. Dederer claimed that the Roads and Traffic Authority had failed I its duty to protect the citizens from harm. More precisely, the authority had failed to specify that there was danger in diving off the rail.

The defendants primary concern was that the risk of diving from the bridge was foreseeable for a 14-year-old. Further, the Roads and Traffic Authority stated that it had taken reasonable measures to prevent harm, but the driver ignored the warnings.

The Arguments Presented By Both Parties

Plaintiffs Arguments

In the Trial Court, Court of Appeal, and High Court, Mr, Phillip Dederer argued that the Roads and Traffic Authority was the primary body tasked with the responsibility of erecting and maintaining the bridge. The appellant opined that the authority had a legal obligation of protecting the citizens from harm but unfortunately failed in its mandate. Mr. Dederer claimed that although RTA had erected pictographs and word signs, they were not effective since they did not hint of any danger. When the judge asked Dederer what the sign No Diving meant to him, he said, it only told me not to dive- it did not specify the danger involved. According to appellant reasonable measures by the defendant would have been to modify the bridge or determine the risk of diving such as shifting sands, changing depths, or danger. The appellant stated that it was not reasonable to him that diving in such a place was dangerous since no accident had been reported since 1958(Gleeson, Gummow, and Heydon, 2007). The plaintiff claimed that the Roads and Traffic Authority should have availed appropriate signage, removed the diving platform, and replaced the horizontal rails with vertical posts.

The Defendants Arguments

In defense, the Roads and Traffic Authority argued that it did not have a care of duty over the plaintiff since the risk of diving was so obvious. The defendant insisted that since the plaintiff was a resident of the area, he was aware of the estuarys shifting sands and varying depths. According to RTA, it was apparent to any reasonable person such as the plaintiff that diving in such an area was dangerous. The defendant did not have a proactive duty to warn reasonable individuals of obvious risks. Further, when a plaintiff engages in dangerous recreation activities, RTA has no liability for the plaintiff's injuries regardless of him not being aware of the obvious risks. Therefore, RTA exempted itself from blame since Mr. Phillip Dederer voluntarily engaged in a dangerous recreation activity by diving off a bridge. Nonetheless, the defendant argued that the authority had placed reasonable measures to prevent harm. For instance, since 1985, it had placed pictographs signs on and near the bridge prohibiting diving. The administration later replaced the pictographs with the words No Diving. Additionally, the authority had written to the Council and the police requesting them to take appropriate measures to prevent the diving.

The Judgment of the Court

The Supreme Court

In the trial court, Judge Dunford found both RTA and the Council liable for negligence. His Honor was convinced that the authority and the council had a duty to protect the citizens from harm. More precisely, both the defendants had had a duty of care to individuals jumping and diving from the bridge and thus warn them of the dangers. Although RTA had erected pictographs and signs discouraging diving, the posts did not hint of dangers in the recreation activity. Most appropriate signposts would have contained the words danger, variable depths, or shifting sands. Moreover, His Honor found the defendant ignored the fact that people ignored the existing signs. According to Judge Dunford, the RTA and the Council should have modified the bridge to prevent injury. For instance, RTA should have removed the horizontal wooden bars that divers used to climb, as well as the flat handrails that divers stood on before jumping. The court ruled that RTA and the Council should pay Mr. Phillip Dederer a total of $840,000 in damages caused by their negligence. The court apportioned 80% responsibility to RTA and 20% to the council. It is the RTA that had access to funds that could have modified the bridge. Nonetheless, Judge Dunford found the plaintiffs contribution to the negligence was 25% (Gleeson, Gummow, and Heydon, 2007). The ruling did not please RTA and thus filled and appeal.

The Court of Appeal

The disgruntled parties filed a petition in the Court of Appeal seeking the overruling of the lower court, which found them guilty of negligence. Three out of the five judges in Court of Appeal concluded that the council had substantial responsibility for the bridge. Therefore, the council too had a general duty to the plaintiff. The defendant insisted that it not have a duty of care towards the Mr. Dederer for he knowingly engaged in an activity with obvious risks. The Council stated that even without pictographs and word signage, the plaintiff out to be aware that such dives were dangerous and could lead to injuries. In response, the Court of Appeal referred the Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW), Division 4, which stated that a defendant was not liable for a plaintiffs injuries if the risks were obvious (Villa, 2013). As a result, the court relieved the Council of legal responsibility.

Judges Ipp and Tobias JJA held that RTA knew that young people, especially children, were diving off the bridge. Further, His Honors pointed that the authority was aware that the divers disregarded the current warnings but took no steps of modifying the bridge. Additionally, the bridges scenery provided an allurement for young people. Therefore, the authority ought to have taken extra restrictive measures compared to those applied to other natural features. The Court of Appeal restated Judge Dunfords sentiments that RTA would have placed useful signs alluding to the danger of diving. Alternatively, the authority would have erected a triangular top to discourage divers. While dissenting, Handley JA referred to Vairy v- Wyong Shire Council (2005) 80 ALJR 1to find that the plaintiff compromised his safety by choosing to partake in a risky recreation activity (Gleeson, Gummow, and Heydon, 2007). However, the majority of the Court of Appeal upheld trial judges findings that RTA had failed in its duty of care. Nonetheless, the Court of Appeal increased the plaintiffs levels of responsibility from 25% to 50%. It stated that the plaintiff had an obligation to protect his safety.

The High Court

The Roads and Transport Authority was dissatisfied with the rulings of lower courts and thus filled a petition in the High Court. While delivering his judgment, Gummow J, referred to the case Brodie v- Singleton Shire...

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