Who is responsible for overgrown vegetation on land and at a junction?


The Court of Appeal recently handed down a decision that a local authority did not owe users of the highway a duty of care in respect of overgrowing vegetation on land at a junction, which affected visibility when emerging from a minor to major road.

The brief facts were that a car driver had struck a cyclist as the car emerged from a minor road to the cyclist’s left. The cyclist sustained serious injuries and although the car driver denied responsibility for the accident and alleged that the cyclist was to some degree responsible, the car driver sought a contribution from the relevant local authority arguing that his visibility at the junction was severely restricted by the presence of vegetation.

However, the Court found that the principle of liability for negligence in creating dangers to users of the highway related only to dangers actually on the highway, and not to possible dangers on land next to the highway.

The Court found other cases referred to by the parties did not apply to the particular circumstances of this case, and therefore were required to reach a decision by developing the law using already established principles.

The Court found that it would not be just or reasonable to impose a duty in this particular situation. The Court accepted the submission made by the local authority that the imposition of the duty on owners of land to ensure that vegetation in their fields and gardens did not affect sight lines on neighbouring highways would be very onerous and have far reaching consequences.

Farmers would need to consider visibility on the highway when deciding where to plant crops, hedges and trees and when to harvest, prune or fell them.

Similar issues would arise in relation to, for example, the planting of shrubs, hedges or trees in urban or suburban gardens.

Furthermore, whilst the present case concerned vegetation, the principle could extend to the erection of buildings, fences and other structures that might affect visibility on the highway.

Another important consideration for the Court was that the road network is imperfect and drivers must take it as they find it.

The Court was also concerned that if a duty of care was found to exist it might lead to an increase in claims by drivers’ insurers for contributions from owners of land adjacent to the highway in cases where visibility was an issue, and a growth in the business of expert advice provided to land owners on the implications of vegetation and structures on their land for visibility on the adjoining road network. The Court felt those would be potentially serious and costly consequences for very little practical gain.

The upshot of this decision is the court’s reluctance to extend the duty that would have far reaching consequences for local authorities and land owners alike.

Sumner –v- Colbourne –v- Denbighshire County Council (1) The Welsh Ministers (2) – [2018] EWCA CIV1006