Court of Appeal: Plaintiff’s appeal dismissed as she fails to prove that car accident was caused by oil spill

Court of Appeal: Plaintiff's appeal dismissed as she fails to prove that car accident was caused by oil spill

The Court of Appeal has ruled that the Motor Insurers Bureau of Ireland was not liable for injuries sustained by a plaintiff after she lost control of her car. The plaintiff alleged that she crashed her car due to an oil spill on the road caused by the negligent use of an unidentified vehicle.

Delivering judgment in the case, Mr Justice Seamus Noonan held that the trial judge was correct to dismiss the case, noting that the court was entitled to prefer the evidence of the MIBI that the oil spill was not the cause of the accident. It was held that the trial judge’s decision was supported by credible evidence, despite the fact that three witnesses supported the plaintiff’s version of events.


In July 2015, the plaintiff was driving her car in the direction of Borris-in-Ossory, County Laois. She was driving on her own despite only holding a provisional driving licence. She approached a railway bridge, which was an s-bend on the road. The road surface was wet.

The approach to the bridge required a sharp right-hand turn. Although inclined on both sides, the centre/apex of the bridge was flat. As the plaintiff approached the bridge, the plaintiff claimed that her car went out of control and started snaking on the road. The plaintiff’s vehicle began to spin and she collided with the right hand wall of the bridge. The plaintiff was injured and collapsed as she attempted to get out of the car.

Subsequently, the plaintiff issued personal injuries proceedings against the MIBI. It was claimed that the plaintiff lost control of her car as a result of a diesel spillage on the road caused by the negligence of an unidentified driver. At trial, the plaintiff produced three witnesses who provided evidence that there was oil or diesel on the road.

The three witnesses each provided slightly different descriptions of the oil on the road, although two of the witnesses claimed to have seen oil on the plaintiff’s side of the road on the approach to the bridge. The plaintiff also produced expert evidence that the likely cause of the spillage was a large diesel fuel truck such as a lorry or tractor which had a loose fuel cap.

In defending the claim, the MIBI called the garda who first attended the scene of the accident to give evidence. The garda took photos of the area of the crash and examined the entire locus by walking up and back. He took notes at the time, including that diesel was only on the opposite lane that the plaintiff travelled in. Further, he claimed that diesel was not found on the approach to the bridge, which was where the plaintiff lost control.

In dismissing the claim, the trial judge preferred the evidence of the garda over the plaintiff’s witnesses. The court reasoned that the garda was a person with experience of car accidents who took objective notes and photographs of the scene.

Additionally, the court held that there were inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s evidence which affected her credibility. These inconsistencies included that the plaintiff failed to inform the MIBI of a prior accident in 2010 in which she received €20,000, that she gave an incorrect account of the accident to her own psychiatrist and that she did not disclose that she suffered a similar back injury in 2018.

As such, the court held that the accident was not caused by diesel on the road on the balance of probabilities. Further, it was held that the plaintiff had not established negligence in the case. The plaintiff appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal.

Court of Appeal

Mr Justice Noonan began his analysis by examining the standard of proof in unidentified motorist cases. The trial judge had held that there was a high onus on a plaintiff in such cases to prove their claim, because there was limited possibility of contradiction by the MIBI. The court corrected this, stating that the standard of proof in untraced motorist cases was the same as any other case, being whether the plaintiff proved their case on the balance of probabilities (see Gervin v MIBI [2017] IEHC 286; Rogers v. MIBI [2009] IESC 30).

The court commented that there was little dispute between the parties about the facts in the case. The core question was simply whether the plaintiff lost control due to driver error or diesel on the road.

The court held that the trial judge was entitled to assess the reliability of the plaintiff’s evidence with reference to the inconsistencies in disclosure. These issues clearly went to the overall credibility of the plaintiff. However, it was also noted that the plaintiff’s case “fell at the first hurdle for reasons largely unconnected” with her evidence.

It was held that the plaintiff’s real complaint was that the trial judge preferred the MIBI’s witness evidence of the garda rather than the plaintiff’s three witnesses of fact. The court stated that the trial judge was required to resolve the conflict of fact and gave cogent reasons for preferring the evidence of the garda.

The court said that this “was quintessentially the function of the trial judge having heard all the witnesses” and that a court would not interfere with the findings of fact of a trial judge that were supported by credible evidence (Doyle v Banville [2018] 1 IR 505; Hay v O’Grady [1992] 1 IR 210).

Mr Justice Noonan held that the trial judge made it clear why he preferred the MIBI’s evidence rather than the plaintiff’s evidence. It was “manifestly implicit” in the judgment that the court felt the plaintiff’s witnesses were mistaken about the oil on the road and there was no requirement for the judge to have articulated that in his judgment.

Finally, the court rejected the plaintiff’s submission that the trial judge should have explained the actual cause of the accident. It was not the function of the trial judge to hypothesise on the cause and the onus was on the plaintiff to prove her case, the court said.


In the circumstances, the trial judge was obliged to dismiss the claim as the plaintiff did not discharge the onus of proof as to causation. As such, it was unnecessary for the court to determine whether there was any negligence on the part of the untraced vehicle. The appeal was dismissed.

Quinlivan v. Motor Insurers Bureau of Ireland [2022] IECA 110

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