28 October 2001
An Active athlete who was crippled in an accident has won his fight against a car rental company in a landmark case which makes rental companies liable for damages if they lease out unsafe vehicles.
Six years after he suffered permanent brain damage in the accident while a passenger in an Avis rental vehicle, the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein has ruled that Avis was responsible for Roelf de Waal’s injuries .
Appeal Court Judge Douglas Scott ruled that Avis acted “wrongfully” and “negligently” by renting out a vehicle that was not roadworthy.
The accident occurred while De Waal and his teammates were travelling to Nelspruit from Cape Town, after the Argus Cycle Tour.
The ruling follows a lengthy legal battle in which De Waal’s attorney, Malcolm Lyons, asked the court to find Avis liable for the accident- caused by a defective tyre- and to declare that the company was not protected by a contractual clause limiting its liability.
Judge Scott said any ”reasonably prudent person” who examined the tyre would have seen there was “a very real and substantial risk that it might fracture at any time in the course of ordinary use”.
“By allowing the minibus to go out on hire with its left rear tyre in the condition it was, Avis acted both wrongfully and negligently in relation to persons who might travel in the vehicle,” said Judge Scott.
Lyons is now to sue Avis for some R3.5 million in damages for his client.
“This landmark victory will warn consumers to be wary of waivers contained in small print,” said Lyons, who is also president of the SA Association of Personal Injury Lawyers.
De Waal, meanwhile, is trying to rebuild his life. The 51 year old accountant, who is unemployed as a result of his injuries, once loved daredevil sports like hang- gliding . He was also an avid cyclist and equestrian, but now shuffles around his Pretoria East home, aided by a single crutch. His legs have weakened and his left hip was so badly injured that he needs a specially built- up shoe.
His speech is also impaired.
“Nothing can change what has happened and no amount of money that Avis can provide will ever give me back the quality of life I used to have.”
Avis, however still maintains it is not responsible, although company spokesman Helen Mckane said Avis acknowledged its responsibility to provide roadworthy vehicles.
“However, Avis has no control over the manner or conditions in which its vehicles may be driven, and therefore believes that it should not be liable for what happens to these vehicles once they leave its premises,” said McKane.