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Title: Can they deny liability after having admitting it?

Date: 05 August 2015

Q.

I was filtering through two lanes of stationary traffic when I was knocked off when by a car which decided to change lanes without warning. The other side initially admitted liability for my accident but now they have said they are going to dispute it. I’d heard that on scene admissions weren’t binding but once they put it in writing surely they can’t just change their mind afterwards!

A.

Unfortunately this can and does happen although they aren’t allowed to do it in every case. A defendant needs the court’s permission to withdraw an admission made before court proceedings have formally started and the way they have to get that is by making an application to the court which the claimant is entitled to oppose. The judge will then decide whether to allow the defendant to withdraw its admission of liability based on whether prejudice had been caused to the claimant’s ability to investigate the accident.

This tends to come as a huge shock to Claimants as generally the court’s approach is to agree to it unless there is a very specific reason to say no; “I was going to win but now I might not” is not sufficient. Had they made the admission after you had started court proceedings however then they would always be bound by it.

You are correct in that on scene admissions of liability aren’t binding because the court recognises that it’s human (and particularly British nature) to apologise when flustered. The court also correctly understands that the participants in the accident aren’t legally trained so probably don’t know who the court would find liable if it was aware of all of the facts.
That’s not to say that on scene admissions of liability can’t be useful because they certainly can. While not binding, they are persuasive, particularly as it is usually insurance companies dealing with liability on behalf of their insurers. Insurers tend to take a very commercial approach so a driver would need to give a very good reason as to why they had admitted liability on scene and then wanted the insurer to pay to have it disputed later. In addition to its persuasive value, people who admit liability on the scene are often happy to elaborate on why they think they were to blame.

While the admission itself can later be withdrawn, a witness reporting that a driver said he was blinded by the sun, distracted by his children (or any one of a hundred other reasons) cannot. It’s useful to remember that regardless of any admission from the other person at the scene, you should still ask witnesses for details and take lots of pictures if at all possible.

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