Sentencing in Navan bus crash case set for next Thursday

The sentencing of Bus Éireann, Meath County Council and Keltank Ltd, arising from the investigation into the 2005 fatal bus crash in which five Meath schoolgirls were killed, has been set for next Thursday.

Keltank Ltd pleaded guilty earlier this week at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to one charge in relation to the matter in which another company, McArdles Test Centre Ltd of Dundalk, was acquitted yesterday by direction of Judge Patrick McCartan following an application by defence counsel, Mr Roderick O'Hanlon SC.

Bus Éireann and Meath County Council have pleaded guilty previously at Trim Circuit Criminal Court to breaches of the Health and Safety Act and their cases are due for mention there next Tuesday when it is expected both cases will be transferred to Dublin for sentencing.

Sonya Kelly, company secretary, pleaded guilty on behalf of Keltank of Balgriggan on day-four of the trial 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 John Hubble, on May 5, 2005.

Mr Shane Murphy SC, for Bus Éireann told Judge McCartan that his client was "anxious" to have the case dealt with and although they pleaded guilty in Trim they had no objection to being transferred to Dublin.

Judge McCartan said he would "give over the day exclusively" to the cases after he was alerted by prosecuting counsel, Mr Brendan Grehan SC, that the inquest into the death of the five girls has been delayed by the criminal proceedings.

He said he understood the urgency involved for the bereaved families and wanted to express his appreciation to all three companies for their co-operation in having the cases dealt with as expediently as possible.

Judge McCartan also refused an application by Mr Donough McDonough BL (with Mr O'Hanlon) to award costs to McArdles Test Centre following its acquittal.

He said his refusal was on the basis that he believed the prosecution case against the company was "entirely justified and fair".

"The scale of documentation alone, the number of witnesses and experts brought in, and the number of exhibits showed that this was a most exhaustive investigation," Judge McCartan said.Mr Joe McArdle, a director, had pleaded not guilty on behalf of McArdles, to two charges of failing to note the ABS warning light on the bus wasn't operational while conducting a vehicle test on March 15, 2005, two months before the tragedy.

Some media coverage of the ending of the trial was criticised by Judge McCartan and Mr Grehan who said he felt there was "very selective reporting" in some of the media on Friday.

Judge McCartan said that from some reports he observed in various media it was obvious the reporters involved had not been present for the final proceedings.

Mr Grehan said there had been "a very comprehensive garda investigation and equally comprehensive Health and Safety Authority investigation", and there was much debate on which of two dates should be selected for the charges in relation to McArdles Test Centre.

"But ultimately I take the responsibility for selecting the date chosen," Mr Grehan said.

He said the view was taken that March 15, 2005, when the bus passed it's road worthiness test, should be the correct date on the indictment and this was strengthened by the fact that Mr Wesley Finlay, a DOE tester with McArdles, told gardai he failed to note the ABS warning light on both March 4 and March 15, 2005.

"The prosecution could have equally floundered if the latter date had been selected," Mr Grehan said.

Judge McCartan said that Mr Finlay's testimony in court was "dramatically different" to the statement he made to gardai and did "not live up to what was expected of him from the prosecution's point of view".

He said that in his view Mr Finlay's evidence led to "an absence of proof" that McArdles Test Centre was aware the ABS warning light was not functioning and coupled with the fact that he believed the charge should have contained the date of the original test, led him to directing the jury to acquit the company on all charges.

He pointed out that having heard the evidence from Mr Finlay he had refused an application by Mr Grehan to change the date on the charge sheet to March 4, 2005 yesterday.

He said he thought it would be grossly unfair to amend the charge sheet at that stage in the trial considering that the State would have been aware at all times that the test on March 15, 2005 merely required a check of the fail items from the earlier test.

Judge McCartan said if Mr Finlay's evidence had been what the prosecution had expected, he might have allowed the dates to be changed but he said that Mr Finlay made it clear that the reason his statement differed was because he had just been taken from work and was ill-prepared.

He said gardaí who investigated the vehicle found that the ABS system was disconnected, tied back and broken. The fact that expert advice suggested that the cables must have been in this state for some time, led the gardaí to believe it must have been in that condition when Mr Finlay tested it in March 2005.

He said this view was then reinforced by Mr Finlay's statement to gardaí.

Judge McCartan said that the State's case ended shortly after and Mr O'Hanlon applied for a direction of not guilty.

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