Sani Pass crash: Row on liability

2008-11-13 00:00

Speeding on the wet Sani Pass gravel road caused the accident that left an Australian tourist a paraplegic and seriously injured his wife, advocate Vinay Gajoo SC, counsel for the KwaZulu-Natal Transport MEC, said in the Pietermaritzburg High Court yesterday.

However, advocate Jean Marais SC, counsel for the driver, Australian Professor Robert Mitchell, said that when an otherwise reasonable gravel road has a slippery patch it is a trap for unsuspecting drivers.

They were arguing in the case in which Australian Murray Eastman, a paraplegic, is claiming the equivalent in Australian dollars of R1,25 million and R31 million and his wife, Jane, is claiming R350 000 and R770 000. The accident occurred in March 2005 when the vehicle crashed in a slippery section.

Their claims are against Mitchell, who drove the vehicle, and the MEC for Transport.

Marais said Mitchell drove the bakkie, in which his wife and the Eastmans were passengers, up to Sani Pass when the road was dry, and crashed on their return in a drizzle, which, Marais said, caused patches to be treacherous.

Advocate Jurie Wessels SC, counsel for the Eastmans, said that if the slippery patches had been gravelled over as they should have been, the accident would never have happened.

“To suddenly hit a slippery patch on an otherwise safe road is highly dangerous,” Wessels said.

Marais said the Sani Pass road is heavily used by tourists and locals. Roads engineer Wally Bennett said earlier that about 300 vehicles a day traversed it, fewer than some KwaZulu-Natal gravel roads, such as at Vulindlela where a gravel road carries up to 1 000 vehicles a day.

The upper reaches of the Sani Pass road are sometimes closed by snow.

Bennett said that gravel roads degenerate quickly in rain and snow.

Marais and Wessels contended that letters of complaint about the state of the road by locals should have alerted the roads department of dangers and elicited repairs. “When a driver suddenly enters a bad pothole it is more dangerous than if the whole road is unsafe and drivers negotiate it carefully,” Wessels said.

Marais said the roads department was so shocked at the state of the road that R1,2 million allocated for tarring the road between the Sani Pass Hotel and the Lesotho border was switched to repairing the road between Himeville and Sani Pass Hotel.

The Eastmans allege that Mitchell was negligent in several respects and that roads department officials were negligent as the road became slippery when wet, rough surfaces were not graded, there were no barriers preventing vehicles leaving the road, there was a deep and dangerous donga next to the road and there were no road signs warning of these dangers.

Mitchell denies that he was negligent at the time of the crash. He said John Eastman was negligent as he occupied the rear bin of a LDV vehicle and that Joan was negligent as she was not wearing a seatbelt.

Their negligence, Mitchell said, absolves him from blame and contributed to their injuries. Mitchell and the roads department ask for their claims to be dismissed, alternatively that their claims be reduced in terms of the Apportionment of Damages Act.

No date for judgment has been given.

Work preparing the road for tarring is proceeding, Bennett said.

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