A teenager who died when she was ejected from a car as it plunged into a low-lying field on the Cork-Kerry border had not been wearing a seatbelt.

Caitlin Taylor, 14, had taken off her seatbelt when she dropped her mobile phone in the front car well and had not refastened it, the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee was told yesterday.

The driver of the car, Sarah O’Connell, of Sean Moylan Park, Mallow, Co Cork, was an unaccompanied learner driver, without displaying L plates, on June 15, 2014, at Knockeenahone, Scartaglen, when the incident occurred.

She had told gardaí she got a provisional licence eight months previous and had taken 10 lessons. She was not used to nighttime driving, Ms O’Connell told gardaí.

She is contesting a charge of careless driving causing the death of Ms Taylor. Judge Thomas O’Donnell is due to charge the jury today.

Ms O’Connell, now 24, told gardaí the teenager had asked her to drive to Scartaglen on that Sunday evening when they met in a shop.

They left Mallow around 9.30pm and were 60km into their journey, and just 5km from Scartaglen, when Ms O’Connell’s car failed to take a bend, went over a ramp-like mound, and dropped 2m into a low-lying field before tumbling a number of times and ejecting Ms Taylor.

Her vehicle was in good condition and she had not exceeded an 80km speed limit, the court heard.

Ms O’Connell has not driven since.

Ms Taylor, discovered some 6m from the car, sustained a fractured skull and upper spinal chord injury.

Neither woman had alcohol or drugs. The trial was told by Tom Rice, prosecuting, it was most likely that Ms O’Connell had not been wearing a safety belt either. Her 18-month-old daughter was unharmed and was still strapped into her booster seat in the car.

Garda forensic examiner James O’Brien said the road surface was dry. There were county council warning cones at the point where the car entered the field, as the council intended carrying out signage and remedial work, but the work had not started.

Sarah O’Connell. Picture: MacMonagle, Killarney
Sarah O’Connell. Picture: MacMonagle, Killarney

Garda O’Brien deduced that Ms O’Connell was not breaking the speed limit. The car had travelled across a mound which acted like a ramp, dropped 2m into the field, went “head over heels” or somersaulted a number of times, before landing 16m into a sloping field.

The car’s rear bumper was detached, all the glass shattered, the roof was damaged, and shoes and clothes were strewn around the field.

Ms Taylor had been thrown from the vehicle in the course of the tumble and the airbags had not held her slight frame, said Garda O’Brien. The front windscreen, still in one piece, was found alongside Ms Taylor.

The car had a full NCT, was in good order, and was taxed, and Ms O’Connell was fully insured, the court was told.

In a prepared statement and subsequent interview with gardaí in August 2014, Ms O’Connell said she remembered how Ms Taylor had taken off her safety belt to retrieve her phone, which had fallen, and had not put it back on.

She said she had known Ms Taylor for two years as “she hangs around with the same people” as herself.

That Sunday evening when she went to Foley’s shop in Mallow, she met Ms Taylor. Ms O’Connell told gardaí: “She wanted a lift to Scartaglen. She said she wanted to meet a fellow. She did not tell me who he was.”

They had stopped in Ballydesmond when Ms Taylor said she wanted to put on make-up. Before the incident, her phone had rung and she had dropped it. She took off her belt to retrieve her phone and had not put the seatbelt back on before the incident, which happened very soon afterwards, Ms O’Connell said in her statement.

Asked if she had a full licence, Ms O’Connell said she did not, and was not displaying L plates or accompanied by a qualified driver.

She said she lives with her parents and helps in their horse-rearing business.

Ms O’Connell told gardaí she believed she had hit a pothole but was not certain.

Asked if she had been distracted by Ms Taylor dropping her phone and taking off her seatbelt, Ms O’Connell said this was a possibility.

Civil proceedings are being taken, Mark Nichols, defending, advised the court.

Dazed and distraught at the scene and concerned for her friend, Ms O’Connell was seeing a counsellor and was getting flashbacks and had not been sleeping after the incident, the trial heard.

Closing speeches continue and Judge O’Donnell is expected to charge the jury today.


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