Sani Pass road ‘not so bad’

2008-04-23 00:00

SOME exaggerated allegations about the Himeville-Sani Pass road — on which an Australian tourist suffered injuries that rendered him a paraplegic — have been made, regional roads department manager Wally Bennett said in the Pietermaritzburg High Court yesterday.

Some of the exaggerated claims were made in the hopes that the roads department would improve the road and at best build a blacktop.

He was testifying in multi-million rand damages claims by Australian couple Murray and Jane Eastman of Canberra, who were seriously injured in a crash on the road in March 2005. Yesterday was the 15th day of the case, which is expected to last into next week.

Advocate Jean Marais, SC, counsel for the Eastmans, said the gravel road is a well-known tourist route to a top hotel, it joins international roads, it carries heavy farming vehicles, is used by women taking children to school and is in a high rainfall area. Until the accident it was only regravelled in 2000, and since then has been only patch gravelled.

Marais said it is heavily used, but Bennett said that about 300 vehicles a day traverse it, which is not untoward. Some KwaZulu-Natal gravel roads, such as at Vulindlela, carry up to 1 000 vehicles a day.

The upper reaches of the Sani Pass road are sometimes closed by snow. Bennett said gravel roads degenerate quickly in rain or snow. Gravel roads are not graded in winter as the process would raise dust, which is a safety hazard. Drivers have to exercise great care on gravel roads.

Murray Eastman, who was an electrician, claims R1,25 million and the equivalent of about R31 million in Australian dollars. Jane, who was less seriously injured, claims R350 000 and about R770 000 in dollars.

The defendants are the driver of the vehicle (former Canberra University Professor Robert Mitchell) and the KZN MEC for Transport.

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, dangerous donga next to the road and there were no road signs warning of these dangers.

They also allege that with the high rainfall in the area, the road is continuously eroded and many accidents are caused or aggravated by the road condition.

Mitchell denies that he was negligent at the time of the crash.

Mitchell says John Eastman was also negligent as he occupied the rear bin of a bakkie vehicle and that Jane was negligent as she was not wearing a seatbelt.

Their negligence, Mitchell says, absolves him from blame and contributed to their injuries.

He asks for their claims to be dismissed, alternatively that their claims be reduced in terms of the Apportionment of Damages Act.

He says he was not aware of a ditch at the crash site. Had he known about it he would have avoided it, even to the extent of driving into a fence on the other side. The case continues today.

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