On 24th May 1997, eight year-old cyclist Darren Coombs was involved in a collision with a car driven by a woman insured by Provident Insurance plc. Darren incurred severe injuries. Solicitors, acting on behalf of Darren made a claim against Provident alleging negligence on the part of the insured driver.
Provident concluded that their insured driver was not at fault and rejected the insurance claim, counterclaiming that the carers of the cyclist were at fault for not equipping him with a cycle helmet.
Provident had taken the highly unusual legal step of joining in the parents of Darren, and a family friend, in to the legal action. This is a device normally used in negligence cases when the person being sued believes others share some responsibility, such as a local authority joining in their maintenance contractor when a cyclist sues because of a road defect.
This unusual action which, if successful, would have set a legal precedent blaming the victim received widespread publicity, causing the CTC to campaign on behalf of Darren and his family, even though they were not CTC members.
At the time CTC Director Kevin Mayne said:
The action taken by Provident Insurance has never been encountered by CTC before. When we investigated via our own solicitors and the Coombs familys legal team we find that there has never been a case of this kind in the UK before. On a worldwide basis the only one we know of was in Canada and was lost by the insurance company.
We see this as little more than a cynical attempt to claw back possible damages from the family and offset some of the financial risk. It is unlikely to succeed, and in the mean time all it does is penalise a family who have already been through the trauma of seeing this child nearly killed and knowing he is permanently damaged.
However if it were to succeed it could set a damaging legal precedent that will have implications not only for all parents, teachers, childminders and anyone in a responsible position. As cycling's largest public liability insurer we can also see an implication for anyone who is nominally responsible for any other cyclist, including group leaders, trainers and organisers.
Following a barrage of campaigning by the CTC and cyclists many of whom cancelled insurance policies with Provident the company yesterday decided to call off its counterclaim.
A statement from Provident Insurance PI said:
PI do not accept any negligence on behalf of the driver and continue to reject the insurance claim. However PI do not wish to involve Darrens parents and childminder in any further unnecessary distress at this time.
The CTC is to use its success in the Coombs case as a lever to ratchet up its Cyclesafe campaign. The CTC, in effect, will become more radical in the pursuit of the rights of cyclists.
CTC director Kevin Mayne said: Some of our members see aggressive campaigning activity as incompatible with our role as a service organisation or a club. However it is a not a problem for the Ramblers, the AA or RAC, all campaigning bodies that have generated a powerful profile for their memberships interests. The Coombs case really highlights that despite the tremendous success CTC has had inside government in recent years there is still a battle to be won elsewhere. There are the powers at local level to do so much more, but local authorities, the police and courts do not use them and insurance companies are often taking highly damaging positions in court to protect their clients interest.
However we cant just suddenly open up a whole new front without resources, or move the CTCs team away from core work on to this work. What we can do however is grasp 123 years of experience and perhaps build on it in a different way. The energy and impetus provided by the response to the sad case of Darren Coombs is the time to start.
We will not let this lie, we now need to harness the energy of all the people who took action on the Coombs case, the offers of goodwill, of action and use it to fight more issues like this.
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