Sani Pass crash: Driver gets the blame

2011-03-30 00:00

RETIRED Australian professor Robert Mitchell, who was driving a vehicle that skidded off the Sani Pass/Himeville road on March 21, 2005, rendering a passenger, John Eastman, a paraplegic, has been held solely responsible for causing the crash.

Five judges of the Supreme of Appeal (SCA) held that Mitchell had driven at an excessive speed.

The court ruled simultaneously that there was no acceptable evidence to show the KZN Transport Department caused or contributed at all to the accident.

It found that the evidence did not establish that the road on which the accident happened was “a death trap or resembled an ice rink” and said photographs taken in May 2005 did not reveal a road that was “atypical of gravel roads”.

In arriving at its conclusions, the SCA overturned the ruling by Pietermaritzburg high court judge Sharmaine Balton, who found the MEC for Transport failed to show that reasonable steps were taken to maintain the road, causing it to be dangerous.

Balton found that the MEC ought to have erected signs to warn motorists, particularly tourists, of the condition of the road in wet weather and a dangerous donga alongside it.

Balton also ruled, however, that Mitchell was driving at an excessive speed in the rainy conditions. She found that he ought to be held liable to pay 30% of damages proved by the Eastman couple, and the Department of Transport 70%. The amount due still has to be determined.

John and Jane Eastman were visiting South Africa at the time of the crash to attend the wedding of Mitchell’s daughter, Jenny. They were returning from a visit to Sani Top when their vehicle skidded off the road and landed in a donga.

John Eastman, who was seated in the bin of the bakkie, was rendered a paraplegic and his wife broke both arms.

The trial heard testimony that numerous complaints had been directed to KZN Transport concerning the condition of the P318 road, which is a major tourist route to the Sani Pass hotel and is also used by farmers.

The SCA said in its judgment it was true that district superintendent Victor Kimmince — against whom the ire of the local community was largely directed — “did not appear to be a particularly efficient administrator” and was certainly “not a meticulous record keeper or particularly responsive to the local community”.

However, it did not necessarily follow that he was informed that the specific stretch of road required immediate attention, nor that it was a “death trap”.

It was common cause that three days before the accident a regional engineer, W.S. Bennett, had inspected the road with Kimmince in response to complaints and he concluded that due to heavy rainfall the road had deteriorated. He also concluded it was an opportune time to upgrade and re-gravel the entire road, which was done a few months after the accident.

The SCA said the onus of proving the allegations of negligence against the MEC for Transport rested on the Eastmans and the trial court was wrong to approach the case on the basis that the MEC had failed to show his department had maintained the road.

The SCA said that of the thousands of motorists who travelled over that stretch of road in the wet, Mitchell was the only one to have crashed.


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