This blog was co-authored with Jason Hudson, Candidate Attorney.

In February 2023, the Northwest High Court revisited the methods for determining damages suffered to a motor vehicle.

The plaintiff claimed a total of R185 056 in damages for collision damage to a motor vehicle. Despite a judgment on merits being granted in favour of the plaintiff in the Magistrates’ Court, it was held that the plaintiff had failed to prove the quantum of the damages on the motor vehicle.

The magistrate had accepted the following:

  1. That the plaintiff’s expert witness, an assessor, was suitably qualified to give evidence on the pre and post collision market values of the damaged motor vehicle.
  2. The evidence given by the expert was acceptable in all aspects, except for his values in quantifying the damages to the custom-built canopy on the vehicle.

However, the magistrate found that the pre and post collision market value of the vehicle was not proved simply because he had doubts regarding the value of the extras that were added to the vehicle.

The appeal court found that the magistrate should have merely adjusted these values if he had not been completely satisfied with them and stated that simple research would have enabled the magistrate to exercise his discretion in determining the quantum. The magistrate erred in disregarding the Trans-Union Auto Dealers’ Guide on the grounds that the relevant pages were not discovered or handed up in court by the plaintiff. The appeal court noted that, by definition, a widely accessible and publicly available source like a legal or factual reference guide is not subject to the rules of discovery since no single party has sole physical control over such a document. Rather, the magistrate should have proactively researched and applied his mind, which would have invariably led him to reference works such as the Trans-Union Auto Dealers’ Guidebook.

The onus rests on the plaintiff to determine the quantum for pecuniary loss for damages suffered to their motor vehicle. There are two general methods to determine this, namely:

  1. To calculate the difference between the market value of the damaged motor vehicle pre collision and its market value post collision; and
  2. To determine the reasonable costs of restoring the vehicle to its pre collision condition.

However, this latter method is not appropriate where this value would exceed the difference between the damaged vehicle’s pre and post market value.

Once the plaintiff has established their quantum, the burden shifts on the defendant to review and dispute the plaintiff’s determination. In this case, there was no dispute between the parties’ experts. The magistrate should not have granted absolution on the grounds that the damages were not proved.

The appeal court reiterated that an application for absolution from the instance in a civil matter may be made either after the plaintiff has failed to prove their claim, or after the defendant has put their case in defense. Accordingly, to escape absolution, a plaintiff must make out a prima facie case relating to all the elements of their claim. If, at the end of the plaintiff’s case, there is evidence upon which a court, applying its mind reasonably, could hold that the defendant was legally liable, the court should not grant absolution.

In the circumstances, it was a contradiction for the court to find in favour of the plaintiff on merits, but then grant an absolution for the quantum. Accordingly, the appeal was upheld, the judgment was set aside, and the matter was referred to the Magistrates’ Court for the hearing on quantum before another presiding officer.