I recently appeared in a County Court trial on behalf of the Defendant in which we were relying upon the rarely employed defence of automatism. For those of you who might stumble upon this sort of case once in a while, this article may provide some assistance as to how the Court will deal with such a defence.


Refreshing my memory as to what exactly automatism was, the following cases provided me with some helpful guidance:


  1. Hill -v- Baxter [1958] 1 All. E.R. 193 – unless the driver can show that he was temporarily incapable through other circumstances to drive, he is responsible as the driver.


  1. Watmore -v- Jenkins [1962] 2 All E.R. 868 – automatism connotes in law no wider concept than involuntary movement of a person’s body or limbs.


  1. Att Gen’s Reference (No 2 of 1992) [1993] R.T.R. 337 – the Court of Appeal stated that the defence of automatism required that there was a total destruction of voluntary control on the Defendant’s part – impaired or reduced control was not enough.


When attending Court it will be essential to provide the above (and other materials relied upon) to the Court, preferably in advance of the hearing – don’t expect the tribunal to be automatically familiar with these authorities.


By way of background to this claim, the Claimant was claiming damages for personal injury, credit hire and repairs to his vehicle – standard fare in RTA litigation. The Defendant, who had served for 29 years with a haulage company driving a heavy goods vehicle, had a spotless record with no previous collisions.


However, as the Defendant turned out of his haulage company yard and onto a long stretch of dual carriageway, he simply blacked out behind the wheel. 400 yards later the consequences were fortunately not as severe as they could have been, as we saw in Glasgow last December. In this case a concertina collision ensued, with the Claimant occupying the third vehicle out of four involved.


One of the first issues to deal with when in conference with a Defendant relying upon the defence of automatism is the previous medical history; specifically whether he had experienced anything similar in the past. It transpired here that he had; the previous year he had been examined for dizzy spells and episodes of syncope.


However, after these examinations, rather than hide his symptoms he was nothing less than completely honest, and had obtained (prior to the collision) a certificate from his doctor confirming that he was perfectly fit to continue driving.


Importantly, a very detailed witness statement will be essential. As we can see from the 1993 Court of Appeal authority above, only total destruction of voluntary control will avail a Defendant of this defence. It was suggested under cross-examination that the Defendant had regained consciousness shortly before colliding with the first of the four vehicles. If this had been accepted, the defence would have been seriously undermined – although his control might have been hampered it would not have been completely absent.


The witness evidence however had set out in great detail the very last thing the Defendant saw before blacking out (a flower stall at the end of the road leading to the accident site) and his first recollection following the accident (the face of a paramedic standing over him). Able to rely upon these facts in Court the evidence of the Defendant obtained a great deal of credibility.


Thirdly, a thorough examination of medical records is required. When persuading the Court that the Defendant had in fact lost total consciousness I was able to rely upon a great deal of medical evidence going back almost twenty years demonstrating that this was a consistent problem which had medically resolved prior the accident.

In this case the defence of automatism was made out; the Court accepted that there was a total destruction of voluntary control prior to the accident. The claim nevertheless succeeded on grounds of negligence separate to this article.


Hopefully, if and when this sort of case falls into your lap, this article will provide a quick and easy starting point to the defence of automatism.


Useful links:

Zenith Chambers:


Chris Rafferty’s profile:




One comment

  1. […] Rafferty considered the defence of automatism in Automotive Automatism (November […]

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