€2.2m fines imposed on bus-crash defendants

Fines totalling €2.2m have been imposed on Bus Éireann, Meath County Council and Keltank Ltd for breaches of health and safety legislation arising out of the fatal crash in which five Meath schoolgirls died.

Judge Patrick McCartan at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court fined Bus Éireann €2m; Meath County Council €100,000, and Keltank - a family run garage in Navan that serviced the school bus - €100,000.

They had pleaded guilty to various charges following what was described as a "comprehensive and exhaustive investigation" into the accident which revealed that the ABS system on the vehicle was not functioning.

The five schoolgirls were killed instantly in what prosecuting counsel, Mr Brendan Grehan SC, said was a "tragic road accident" that happened four miles outside Navan on May 23, 2005.

Another 46 schoolchildren, including Rachel McGovern who was still trapped under the bus when emergency crews arrived, a motorist in another vehicle and the bus driver, Mr John Hubble, were injured.

Sonya Kelly, a director and company secretary, pleaded guilty on behalf of Keltank during a trial in May that being aware that ABS sensor leads were disconnected in the fatal bus, it failed to ascertain whether a hazard arose as a consequence thereof before returning it to the driver, Mr Hubble, on May 5, 2005.

Meath County Council pleaded guilty at Trim Circuit Criminal Court in 2006 that it failed to prepare a Health and Safety plan for the construction work at the site and failed to appoint a project supervisor for the works.

Bus Éireann pleaded guilty, also at Trim Circuit Criminal Court in 2006, that it failed to ensure the school bus was maintained in a safe condition in that the ABS system was not working on the vehicle and that it failed to instruct Mr Hubble in relation to ABS.

Bus Éireann had one previous Health and Safety conviction and was fined €100 at the District Court. Neither Bus Éireann, Meath County Council nor Keltank had any other previous convictions. Another company, McArdles Test Centre Ltd of Dundalk, was acquitted of a charge against it by direction of Judge McCartan at the conclusion of the trial in May at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.

The inquest into the death of the five girls has been delayed by these criminal proceedings.

Judge McCartan said that on behalf of himself and all concerned he wished to express his deepest sympathy to the family, friends and especially school friends of those killed.

"Claire McCluskey, Deirdre Scanlon, Lisa Callan, Amy McCabe and Sinead Ledwidge are to be remembered. It’s impossible to put words adequate enough to describe their (the families) loss," Judge McCartan said.

He said that the young girls went to school that day expecting to be looked after and cared for and anticipating a safe service to be provided from Bus Éireann.

He commended the gardaí and ambulance crew who arrived so promptly on the scene and the health and safety authority who he said aided the investigation.

Judge McCartan said that the accident was "entirely avoidable" and though there was many factors that contributed to it, he said it was "an undoubted feature that the lack of ABS on the bus most significantly contributed to it".

"I believe that if the ABS had been working properly there would be every possibility that there would have been no accident at all," said Judge McCartan.

He accepted evidence from Rod McLellan, a braking specialist, that if the bus had properly functioning ABS, it would not have swung out onto the road as it did and Mr Hubble would most likely had been able to control it and bring it to a safe stop.

Judge McCartan said the investigation "exposed many failings and shortcomings of various agencies that hopefully will not be repeated" and noted that during the trial a school bus overturned in Donegal which fortunately did not result in any injuries.

"Perhaps there is more to be done in relation to safety," he said.

He said that, in his opinion, Bus Éireann was most responsible for the fatalities that day because the ABS was not functioning properly, "an appalling situation".

He said the court could conclude that Bus Éireann was also responsible for the removal of a bulb in a warning light that would have indicated to Mr Hubble that there was a problem with the ABS.

Judge McCartan said he was satisfied that as Keltank received its instruction from Bus Éireann in relation to the maintenance of the vehicle, the company was "so far removed" that it could not be held directly responsible for the death of the five girls.

He said that Keltank’s failure was to address would should have been "an evident danger" when its staff noticed disconnected ABS cables on the undercarriage of the vehicle.

Judge McCartan said that if Meath County Council had appointed a project supervisor and had implemented a health and safety plan, he believed that matters would not have been in any way substantially different and therefore the 0Council was "the most removed from the tragedy".

He noted that all three groups fully co-operated with the investigation, pleaded guilty at an early opportunity and expressed genuine remorse and regret for their failings.

Mr Shane Murphy SC, defending Bus Éireann, submitted before sentence that as his client was a public company it was not driven by profit, provided a public service and reinvested its profits in the company.

The court heard that the servicing of Bus Éireann vehicles made up 75 percent of Keltank’s annual turnover at the time but the company lost the contract in January 2007 which resulted in a net loss of €165,000 last year, following a €75,000 profit the previous year.

Martin Nolan, Chief Operations Officer of Bus Éireann, read a short statement to the media after the hearing in which he reiterated on behalf of the company his condolences and deepest regrets to the family and friends of the five girls.

He said that the safe transportation of school children remained "the highest priority" for the company and added that the company was committed to improving safety. "But nothing will diminish the pain of those bereaved," Mr Nolan added.

Tom Dowling, Meath County Manager, said the Council accepted Judge McCartan’s decision "on this very, very sad day".

"On behalf of the council and myself I wish to extend our sympathies to the families and friend of those killed that day and our thoughts will continue to be with them," Mr Dowling said.

Ms Kelly broke down in tears earlier in court when she expressed deep regret and remorse on behalf of herself, her family and all Keltank employees to the families of the victims.

"We are completely devastated for the families and the five girls," she said in reply to Keltank’s defence counsel, Mr Derek C. Kenneally SC.

She said Keltank was a family run business with 11 employees and its system was deficient at the time resulting in a failure to get assistance or advice when it was noticed that the ABS was not working on the bus.

It was established in the court proceedings that an ABS warning light, which would have indicated to a driver that there was a problem with the system, was not working and its bulb had been removed. Gardaí never established who had removed it.

However, Mr Hubble told gardaí he never knew there was ABS on the bus and was never given any training in relation to the system by Bus Eireann. He was never charged with any offence arising out of this case.

A proper functioning ABS system would have enabled the driver to maintain direction and control of the bus when braking and Mr Hubble told gardaí that when he first braked the bus shuddered and when he braked a second time the collision resulted and his bus turned over on its side.

Sergeant Alt Martin who arrived within nine minutes of the collision described it in court as having "an air of unreality with children walking around screaming and talking on their mobile phones".

He said it was quite obvious that the five young girls trapped under the bus had lost their lives. The 53-seater coach was carrying 56 schoolchildren from St Michael’s Loreto Convent and Beaufort College, both in Navan.

It spun around 180 degrees before skidding onto an embankment and overturning killing the five girls. None of the children onboard was wearing a seat belt as it was not a legal requirement at the time.

A first trial in Trim Circuit Criminal Court involving Keltank and McArdles Test Centre collapsed dramatically in March 2007 after it emerged a juror had attended the funeral of one of the girls who died in the crash near Kentstown, Co Meath.

It was decided then to transfer the trial to Dublin and at its conclusion last week it was decided also to hold the full sentence hearing in Dublin.

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