Why Roberts v Ramsbottom is important
In Roberts v Ramsbottom, Neill J concluded that a defendant is only excused of failing to take reasonable care based on an illness where they have suffered from a total loss of consciousness. Borrowing from the criminal law, this must equate to automatism.
Mrs Roberts parked her car at the side of the road. As she was exiting the vehicle, a car driven by Mr Ramsbottom collided with her vehicle, causing the claimants serious injuries. About 20 minutes before the collision, Mr Ramsbottom suffered from a stroke, clouding his judgement.
Before driving into Mrs Roberts’ car but after suffering from the stroke, the defendant had driven off without his wife.
The claimants brought an action against Mr Ramsbottom in the tort of negligence. Mr Ramsbottom argued he was not negligent because of the stroke. He said his consciousness was so clouded that he was unable to properly control his car and unable to appreciate his unfitness to drive.
What is the objective standard of care expected of someone whose judgement has been impaired by an illness. Whether Mr Ramsbottom did take the required level of care.
Neil J held that Mr Ramsbottom was negligent.
Neil J took guidance from the criminal law. He concluded that in cases such as these, where there is a prima facie case of negligence, the defendant has to show that they have suffered from a ‘total loss of consciousness’, or that their actions were ‘wholly beyond their control. In the words of the criminal law, the defendant must show that their condition is one of ‘automatism’.
From the medical evidence, Neil J found that the stroke did impair Mr Ramsbottom’s consciousness and awareness whilst driving. However, he also found that the defendant had sufficient consciousness to be aware of his surroundings, including that he had collided with a van, and in part control the car.
Neill J therefore concluded that Mr Ramsbottom was negligent. Because he could not show a total loss of control (a degree of automatism), Neill J judged him by the same standard as the reasonable person and thus found he failed to take reasonable care.
In the alternative, Neill J held Mr Ramsbottom had been negligent because he continued to drive when he was both unfit to do so and should have been aware he was unfit to do so.
This approach was overturned by the Court of Appeal in Mansfield v Weetabix Ltd.