Trailer hire companies not liable for clients' offences, appeal court rules

16 January 2021 - 11:07
Trailer hire companies are not liable for offences committed by their clients, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled. Stock photo.
Trailer hire companies are not liable for offences committed by their clients, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Evgenyi Lastochkin

Trailer hire companies have heaved a sigh of relief after the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) confirmed that they are not liable for traffic offences committed by their clients.

The minister of transport has been embroiled in a protracted legal battle with Brackenfell Trailer Hire, a Cape Town company owned by Pascal Sprague and Gerhardus Odendal.

Sprague had been unable to renew her driver’s licence for three years when she and Odendal sued the minister, the City of Cape Town and the director of public prosecutions in the high court in Cape Town.

At the time, Sprague said the city refused to renew the licence discs for some of her trailers because of the outstanding fines, and she could not renew her driver's licence.

They had also been repeatedly prosecuted for driving and parking offences committed by their clients. Between them, they own up to 2,000 trailers that are registered in their names.

“Naturally, the offences are committed by those who drive the towing vehicles, and not by 'drivers' of the trailers, since trailers are by definition not self-propelled nor independently driven,” Sprague said in court papers.

The problem arose when cameras took pictures of the rear of vehicles.

“The owner of the trailer is then presumed to have been the 'driver' of the trailer when a driving or moving offence was committed, or the one who parked it illegally.

“The result is that, more often than not, [we] are prosecuted for traffic offences committed by others ... Numerous traffic offences were recorded against us personally in various magisterial districts.”

According to Sprague, in instances where spot fines were not paid, they were summonsed to appear in court, and were often charged with contempt of court and had warrants issued for their arrest.

They had tried many times to redirect fines to clients, only to find they had changed their addresses.

The high court ruled in their favour in 2019 but the minister took the decision on appeal.

SCA deputy judge president Xola Petse, who penned the judgment, rejected the minister’s contention and upheld the high court’s decision on Thursday. Four other judges concurred with him.

“Consequently, it follows that the reasoning of the high court cannot be faulted,” the judgment reads. “The appeal is dismissed with costs, including the costs of two counsel.”

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