Poorly maintained road caused mom’s near-fatal crash
Free State roads department must cough up millions to a single mother left crippled in a car accident
When Jillian-Joan van der Merwe made a quick stop after a day of work to buy koeksisters for her daughters from their favourite roadside stall, she set in motion a string of events that would leave her paralysed.
The brief stop in Dealesville while heading home to her children in Bloemfontein is her last memory before a horrific car crash in which her bakkie veered from the road and rolled into a cloud of dust and debris.
But, a decade after the accident the Bloemfontein High Court ruled that the Free State government was liable for her R7m damages claim owing to its parlous maintenance of the road which ultimately caused her accident.
“My kids always want koeksisters and my dad loves the biltong from that stall, and I stopped because it was their favourite. We still stop there when we pass through the town. The only difference is that now it is a very emotional part of my travels,” she said.
“It brings all the trauma rushing back,” the single mother added.
The sales representative had spent a long day on the road and, after her stop, headed back to the family smallholding.
As a car had drawn alongside her to pass her bakkie, she moved left to the road shoulder, an instinctive move that would have lifelong consequences.
Piecing together the moments before her bakkie careered from the R64 – a district road which joins the provincial capital with the town – accident reconstruction specialists found that the edge of the road was so degraded that there was a 30cm drop between the tarmac and the shoulder.
It was this drop-off – the result of years of neglect by the department of roads, which is meant to maintain it – that caused Van der Merwe to lose control and spin off into the veld.
Judge Somaganthie Naidoo, handing down her judgment, had a searing view of the Free State department of public works, roads and transport.
“In my view, the accident was caused because of the poor condition of the road, which condition can be attributed to the negligence of the department in failing to maintain the road in a proper condition to ensure the reasonable safety of the users of that road,” she ruled.
About the parlous condition of the roadway, Naidoo said: “The edge break has ingressed into and obliterated the yellow line and, in some places, went beyond the yellow line into the travelling lane of motorists. The height of the drop-off also caused a serious safety hazard, with the result that traffic could not, and ought not to have utilised the shoulder of the road.”
The court heard that the R64 and the road shoulder had not been maintained or repaired in four years before the accident, save for fixing potholes.
It also heard that the engineer who visited the accident scene "used a tube of Lip Ice to measure the drop off on the road".
“After the accident there was what has been described as a flurry of activity to effect repairs to the shoulders of the road,” Naidoo found.
She ruled that the department compensate Van der Merwe for the full amount of her claim, pay the costs of her legal team and their experts who were called to testify.
But nearly a decade later, Van der Merwe is still putting the pieces of her life back together. “This accident changed my life. I woke up with a new body. I lost my work and my independence and my personal space. I need someone to help me with everything I do,” she said.
“Someone has to put me in the car and then I have to hassle with getting the wheelchair in and out. A lot of things aren’t accessible for me,” she added.
She said that her children, now aged 13 and 16, had become her de facto caregivers and had missed out on the carefree years of their childhood.
“They were very young when I had the accident and what this did was rob them of a part of their childhood. More than that, I am just lucky that I am still alive.
“I am trying not to be bitter about what happened to me, but I have my days when I’m down and overcome with anger about how they robbed me of the life I had.”