By Joe Leogue
An 84-year-old man, who was previously prescribed medication for memory loss, drove his jeep over 3km in the wrong direction on a motorway against the flow of traffic before hitting a delivery van head-on in a crash that claimed his life.
The inquest into the death of Tom Joe O’Riordan today heard that worried oncoming motorists flashed lights and blew their horns in a bid to warn the North Cork man before the tragic collision on the southbound lane of the M8 Dublin-Cork motorway on December 30 2016.
The jury in Mallow were shown CCTV footage of Mr O’Riordan performing a u-turn at the toll plaza at Watergrasshill, Co Cork before driving north on the southbound lane.
Conor McCarthy, the driver of the delivery van, told Coroner Dr Michael Kennedy that he was helpless to avoid the collision some 3km south of the toll plaza, and recalled the pain and injuries he suffered in the crash.
Martin and William O’Riordan, sons of Mr O’Riordan, recalled how he visited their homes near Rathcormac to help with farm work that morning as usual, and that they observed no change in his behaviour.
William said his father was not familiar with the motorway, and would have used the old national road if ever driving to Cork city.
Patrick Beecher, a retail manager at Rathcormac Tyres, was the last person to speak with Mr O’Riordan before the collision.
He said Mr O’Riordan often called to the business to have the pressure in his tyres checked. Mr Beecher noted nothing different in Mr O’Riordan’s behaviour, or driving, as he left the business’ yard at around 11.20am.
Sean O’Donnell, Operations Manager at the toll plaza at Watergrasshill, said he was testing a payment machine on one of the lanes at around 11.30am when he saw a dark coloured Isuzu Trooper 4x4 come within 50 metres of the plaza before its right indicator came on, and the jeep performed a u-turn and left.
He said Mr O’Riordan’s driving was controlled, not erratic, and that he immediately called gardai to warn them that a jeep was going the wrong way down the motorway.
CCTV footage of Mr O’Riordan turning at the toll, recorded at the plaza, was shown to the jury and Mr O’Riordan’s family.
Mr McCarthy told the inquest that he had collected newspapers from a printers in Dublin in a Mercedes Sprinter van early that morning, and was bringing his cargo to Cork when the collision occurred.
He said he moved to overtake an oil tanker, and was level with its rear wheels, when he saw Mr O’Riordan’s jeep coming towards him. Trapped between the oil tanker and the central barrier, Mr McCarthy said it was too late to do anything about the collision.
“I didn’t have time to react,” he said.
He was trapped in the vehicle in what he described as ‘the worst pain I ever had’.
Mr McCarthy attempted to call his father, but the hands-free microphone in the van cabin was smashed in the collision.
The fire brigade cut him from the wreckage, he was placed on a spinal board and was transferred to Cork University Hospital. He suffered a broken leg, dislocated hip and fractured pelvis in the crash and was later sent to Dublin for an operation on his injuries.
A statement from Dr Margaret McLaughlin was read to the jury. Dr McLaughlin witnessed the accident from the northbound lane of the motorway. She pulled in and went to assist Mr O’Riordan.
She said there was ‘a lot of blood’ and that while Mr O’Riordan had a faint pulse, that faded and he died on the scene.
Statements from other doctors were read to the jury, one from Dr Peter Kenirons, a consultant neurologist who said he had seen Mr O’Riordan briefly in 2011 when he complained of memory loss.
He prescribed him with Aricept for mild cognitive impairment, but Mr O’Riordan did not keep a follow up appointment some six months later.
The other statement was from Mr O’Riordan’s GP Dr Joe Keane who said the deceased was on medication, but that his mental state did not deteriorate in his final years. He had seen him two weeks before the collision.
Assistant State Pathologist Dr Margot Bolster said the cause of death was a severe brain trauma injury consistent with a road accident, and that he would have been immediately rendered unconscious on impact.
She said that while a study of Mr O’Riordan’s brain showed signs of an alzheimer-type pathology, this was consistent in people of his age and not a sign of cognitive impairment or an indication that he was suffering alzheimer's.
This, she told the inquest, can only be determined through a clinical assessment of a live patient.
Sargent Edward Geary of Fermoy Garda Station said they had received ‘quite a few’ calls from motorists that morning who observed Mr O’Riordan on the motorway, and took statements from some who said they attempted to warn him as they came towards them.
The jury returned a narrative verdict.