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Penningtons Manches' travel law team wins High Court liability trial for British victims of fatal road traffic accident in Portugal

Posted: 04/03/2014

The travel law team at Penningtons Manches LLP has this week secured a favourable judgment for a British family following a High Court trial to determine who was responsible for a road traffic accident which occurred in Portugal on 7 September 2010.

The accident occurred while Mr and Mrs Martin Vann were on holiday in Portugal with their adult children and partners. Following an evening meal they crossed a road to return to their car. Just before they reached the other side, Mr and Mrs Vann were struck by a vehicle driven by a Brazilian driver, which caused catastrophic injuries to both of them.

Martin Vann suffered severe frontal lobe injuries and tragically died a few days after the accident. Mrs June Vann suffered severe orthopaedic injuries and an extremely serious brain injury which caused her to be in a coma for several days. After being air-lifted back to the UK, she spent nine months as an inpatient in the Neurological Rehabilitation Unit at Homerton Hospital.

Although Mrs Vann has recovered well from her orthopaedic injuries, she continues to suffer from very significant cognitive deficit and will require professional care and support for the rest of her life. She has also lost the capacity to manage her affairs and the team has therefore applied to the Court of Protection for the appointment of a deputy.

It was not only Mr and Mrs Vann that suffered as a consequence of the accident. Their two children, Alex Vann and Julia Plappert, endured the ordeal of witnessing the accident and its immediate aftermath and were later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the early stages of the case the defendant’s Portuguese insurers, Ocidental SA, conceded liability, although the admission was subsequently withdrawn. The insurers then maintained their denial of liability all the way to trial.

The family has always been adamant that the Brazilian driver was travelling too fast and that he was solely responsible for the accident.  At trial, His Honour Mr Justice Supperstone accepted the family’s testimony and concluded that Mr and Mrs Vann did not show a lack of reasonable care for their own safety. He found that the speed of the car as it approached the restaurant was 53 to 64 mph (with a mean speed of 58.5 mph) and that the defendant was therefore driving at a speed close to, or in excess of the local speed limit.

He concluded that the driver was travelling too fast for the conditions and that he would have been able to brake and avoid the collision entirely had he travelled at 43mph or less. He also dismissed the pleaded allegation that the family’s ability to cross the road was impaired by alcohol.

Mark Lee, the partner in charge of the travel law team, represents the Vann’s son-in-law, Nicholas Plappert, as the litigation friend of Mrs June Vann, the estate of Mr Vann and also Alex and Julia regarding their associated claims for “moral damages”.

Commenting on the case, Mark Lee said: "This was a tragic accident involving a very close knit family whose lives were turned upside down while on holiday in Portugal. Mr and Mrs Vann’s children have done their best to continue to look after June although this is very challenging because of her behavioural changes resulting from the accident. Not only did they lose their father but, in many ways, they have also lost the mother that they knew and loved.

“I am delighted that the court has now recognised that the Vann family was the innocent victim of this terrible tragedy and that the defendant has been held 100% responsible for the accident. It is disappointing that the Portuguese insurer felt it appropriate to withdraw its previous admission of liability and surprising that it continued to fight primary liability in the run up to trial. We remain of the view that the evidence has always been fairly clear – the Brazilian driver was travelling too fast and he was the cause of the accident.”

Nick Plappert was delighted with the verdict but dismayed by the approach taken by the Portugese insurers, Ocidental S.A: “Our primary concern has always been to recover sufficient compensation to pay for the professional care that June now needs and this judgment will greatly help that process.

“It is very frustrating that the Portuguese insurers decided to withdraw their previous admission of liability since it meant we had to go through the ordeal of a trial in order to get justice. We hope that Ocidental SA will now adopt a more sensible approach to the quantum negotiations so that we can try to draw a line under this terrible tragedy.”

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP