Company car drivers will now be warned not to assume roads have been treated in cold spells as cash-strapped highways authorities could be tempted to save money by scaling down their gritter fleets in the wake of the decision. The ruling will also strengthen the case for companies to ensure their drivers have been given fleet driver training.
The House of Lords decision came after a legal battle between driver Geoffrey Goodes and East Sussex County Council in which Goodes was seriously injured when his car skidded on black ice and hit a bridge parapet.
Goodes, who is now paralysed as a result of the accident, sued the council, claiming it was breaching its statutory duty, but the House of Lords decided the duty to maintain the road did not include preventing the formation of snow and ice. The Lords felt it was an issue for Parliament to consider as Goodes, through no fault of his own, was left without any legal remedy, but if Parliament does not intervene, highways authorities might decide to cut back on gritting.
David Faithful, insurance partner with Amery-Parkes Solicitors, said: 'It is now going to be extremely difficult to pursue or pass on a claim for damages to an authority in these circumstances.
'A further irony of this decision is that owners of property who are responsible for car parks are now under a greater legal duty to prevent the risk of slipping on snow or ice than a highways authority responsible for a section of motorway.
'Fleet managers should be telling their drivers when there is snow or ice not to assume the roads have been gritted. This sort of decision will not be public knowledge - most people will assume that if they pay their council tax the roads will be gritted.'
But local councils say it would not be politically wise to cut back on gritting. Wiltshire County Council has the highest proportion of gritted roads in the south west and this year has a budget of £1.169 million to prevent ice forming on roads.
A spokesman said: 'Last year we went over budget and spent £1.6 million but we always have people telling us we should be doing more gritting, so no politician will stand up and say we're going to cut back on gritting the roads.'