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‘Death by Dangerous’ as it is known by Road Traffic Lawyers

One of my most memorable cases of this year was a case of Causing Death by Dangerous Driving (or ‘Death by Dangerous’ as it is known by Road Traffic Lawyers). It all turned on the suspension system used in most cars. A suspension system called the MacPherson Strut. Designed by Mr Earle S. MacPherson in 1945.

The Case of the MacPherson Strut

A seventeen-year-old girl was on her way to work early one morning in mid-Sussex. She had not long passed her test and she was driving a second hand Kia bought for her by her father.

She sent round a corner and then inexplicably left the road, mounded the kerb and then travelled along the pavement for about 10-15 feet at speed before returning to the road. 

As it happened the section of pavement in this semi-rural village was usually empty especially at that time of the morning (7:36 am). However unfortunately for many people, it was not empty that morning. As it happened, at that exact location a man just happened to be walking along. It was a classic and tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the car mounted the kerb, the 57 year old, John Brown (as we shall call him) must have had a split second to turn around just before the car, which was moving at about 30 mph according to the police evidence, smashed into him from behind. He didn’t stand a chance. He was vaulted into the air with such force that his spine ripped through his major organs. According to the medical evidence he was as good as dead before he even hit the ground, several feet behind the car. He was certainly dead by the time the ambulance arrived about 24 minutes later.

Having re-joined the road, the Kia came to a stop about 100 feet further along. A number of motorists stopped and ultimately gave witness statements. Police obviously attended to take those statements and establish a crime scene. An expert police collision officer was on the scene within an hour and measurements were made and photographs taken, including of: the road, the skid marks, the scuff marks on the kerb, the positions of the deceased, the Kia, the pot-holes (there were many) and the road leading up to the crash site. This material formed the basis of the ultimate Road Traffic Collision Report compiled by that officer and this became the cornerstone of the prosecution case.

The witness statements indicated that some motorists who had seen the Kia in the moments prior to the crash had formed the impression that it was in a hurry and probably speeding. You don’t have to be a Road Traffic Lawyer to know that this evidence was potentially very unhelpful to the defence.

The driver of the Kia was interviewed and essentially stated that she was driving along within the speed limit and she suddenly and inexplicably lost control of the car and mounted the kerb. Before she knew it she had collided with Mr Brown and caused his fatal injuries. She could offer no explanation. She had not been using her phone (which was seized) and she had not been drinking or taking drugs (she was tested for both). She thought she might have had hit a pothole; it was very sudden.

The next crucial stage of the investigation was an examination of the vehicle for mechanical defects which could have contributed to the loss of control. 

A police vehicle examiner looked at the car in the ‘breakers’ yard’ where it had been securely stored since the crash. For whatever reason, it was several weeks before this examination was carried out (this is not uncommon). 

The police examiner tested the brakes and steering and conducted a general examination and concluded that no mechanical defects could have contributed to the loss of control.

A report on the potholes in the area (believe it or not there are various categories of potholes) was also commissioned by the police and it concluded that the prevalence of potholes in the area could not have materially contributed to the loss of control (they were not deep enough according to the police report). 

Both of these reports fed into the police Road Traffic Collision Report and the officer authoring the report concluded that (a) there was no mechanical defect that contributed to or caused the crash, (b) drink and/or drugs were not involved, (c) the potholes could not have contributed to or caused the crash, and (d) although the witnesses spoke of excessive speed, the measurements taken of the skid marks and the kerb strike marks indicated that the vehicle was travelling at a range of speed that was 30mph – 38mph (the lower figure is taken in fairness to the defendant). 

Following the investigation and completion of and consideration of the various reports, the 17-year-old girl (let’s call her Kia) was charged with causing death by dangerous driving. 

The prosecution alleged that, as there was no other explanation for leaving the road, it must have been down to her poor driving. It is fair to say that reasonably competent drivers do not tend to mount the kerb at speed. And as all Road Traffic Lawyers know by heart, the definition of Dangerous Driving is driving which ‘falls far below that of a reasonably competent driver’. 

Suddenly a diabolical situation for young Kia had become a lot worse. She now not only had to deal with the fact that her actions had caused the untimely death of a wholly innocent and (as it turned out) and extremely kind and generous man who had retired early and was on his way to his voluntary job running a café at the local hospital where he was something of a local hero due to his charity work, not only that, but also she was now facing up to 14 years’ in prison.

This is where I became involved. I was instructed as the Barrister in the case and, having read the initial papers, I met with her and her father at a case-conference. What I remember most was how utterly devastated she was at what had happened. I was concerned for her mental health as she described that the deceased had become her ‘best friend in her head’. She had read all about him in the local press and discovered what a remarkably kind and special man he was.

One of the first things that I did was to advise that we obtain our own expert collision investigators’ report. Our defence collision expert (an extremely experienced ex-Road Traffic police officer called David Burgess) conducted his own examination of the vehicle in the presence of the police examiner who had conducted his examination several months’ earlier. 

The car was jacked up and our examiner went to remove the nearside front wheel. When asked by the police examiner ‘what are you doing that for?’ he answered tartly ‘to see what’s behind it’. 

When he removed the nearside front wheel what he discovered was shocking and revelatory. The coil spring of the MacPherson Strut suspension was snapped into three bits. His subsequent Report concluded that, in his professional opinion, this could have caused the ‘loss of directional control’ immediately before the mounting of the kerb. We served this upon the prosecution and one might have hoped that this would be the end of the matter. It wasn’t. 

The police and prosecution unfortunately wriggled around like crazy to try to prevent this evidence helping the defendant. 

Firstly they claimed that this must have happened whilst the car was in their storage subsequent to the crash! They produced a statement indicating that cars get shoved around at breaker’s yards and it must’ve happened there! However, luckily there were photographs of the car at the scene before it was lifted away and these photos showed the wheel in question and also the ‘ride height’ of the tyre in question relative to the wheel arch. This established that the MacPherson Strut coil-spring was almost certainly already broken immediately after the crash.

An expert metallurgist was instructed by the prosecution and a further report was produced dealing with how metal behaves in various situations and how old the breaks to the metal were. One of the main conclusions was that, this break in the steel coil spring would have caused a very loud bang. No such noise immediately before the accident was heard.

We then commissioned our own expert metallurgist who concluded that there would have been a loud noise but this could have been missed with an engine revving and a radio being played.

We even had our own defence pothole expert. An interesting lady who literally had an MA in potholes! One of the moments of levity in the trial was when the judge introduced her as ‘someone who spends a lot of her time staring into potholes’ (probably not true or fair but amusing at the time).

Ultimately, the fact that the prosecution vehicle examiner had not even bothered to check the suspension and that this was damaged in a very significant way turned the trial in the defendant’s favour. It even turned out that the vehicle had hit a fairly large pothole immediately before loosing control and this, could have caused and already weak suspension to break at the critical moment. 

The Verdict

Our young defendant was unanimously acquitted by the jury on all counts (including the lesser charge of Causing Death by Careless Driving) and all because of the MacPerson Strutt.

By George Hepburne Scott, Road Traffic Lawyer