Sunday 22 October 2017

Fatal school bus crash: Vehicle testers found guilty of breaching safety laws

The scene of the bus crash near Clara, Co. Offaly which claimed the life of one schoolboy in April 2006
The scene of the bus crash near Clara, Co. Offaly which claimed the life of one schoolboy in April 2006

Declan Brennan

A VEHICLE testing firm has been found guilty of breaching health and safety laws in the testing of a school bus which was later involved in a fatal crash.

The bus went out of control on a bog road just outside Clara, Co Offaly on April 4, 2006 after the rear drive axle came off. Schoolboy Michael White (15) died as a result of “catastrophic injuries” suffered during the crash.

A bolt missing from the right side of the rear suspension system led to fatigue fractures, ultimately resulting in both sides of the suspension failing and the rear drive axle separating from the 1989 Mercedes bus.

David O'Reilly, acting on behalf of vehicle testing firm O'Reilly Commercials Ltd of Ballinalach, Mullingar, Co Westmeath had pleaded not guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to four charges of breaching health and safety laws when carrying out an official test on the bus between August 5 and 6, 2005.

The charges, brought under the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989, alleged that the firm had failed to ensure that persons were not exposed to risks to their safety or health as a result of the way the test was carried out.

After a 23 day trial, the jury of ten men and two women deliberated for just under eight hours before returning a verdict of guilty on the first count which outlined a failure to note the modified rear suspension system.

In direct evidence Mr O’Reilly said he didn't think the rear suspension system was modified.  This airbag based spring system was retro-fitted to the bus in the UK in 1991 and was the subject of a safety recall notice in 1991.

The company was found not guilty of failing to verify this modified suspension as safe. It was also acquitted of failing to note a missing bolt and failing to take account of a fracture in the chassis.

Raymond McKeown of River Street, Clara, Co Offaly, who bought the bus in September 2005, previously pleaded guilty to failing to maintain the bus under health and safety laws. He will be sentenced next month.

Judge Margaret Heneghan adjourned the case of O’Reilly Commercial Ltd to next month when a sentence date will be fixed.

In direct evidence Mr O’Reilly said that the bolt was present in September 2005 and that he had no safety concerns about the bus when he gave it a certificate of road worthiness.

In 1996 the spring system retro-fitted to the bus was the subject of a safety recall notice in the UK after it emerged that the rear spring had failed in a number of buses, potentially as a result of vehicles going over speed bumps at speed.

The bus was later imported to Ireland and the previous owner James Gaffey told the court that in 2003 he replaced a damaged rear spring in 2003 with a second hand spring.

Mr Gaffey brought the bus to O'Reilly Commercials Ltd in 2005 to have it tested for an official roadworthiness certificate. He sold the bus to Raymond McKeown in September 2005.

A large number of school children told the trial that the bus was in bad condition and they described banging and rattling as it travelled over bumps in the road.

One witness said the bus was leaning to one side on the morning of the crash. Kayleigh Murray said that on the previous afternoon she had heard a bang as the bus went over a bumpy part of the road.

She said: “The bus was in s***e. The bus was fairly broken down. I'm not a mechanic but it was tilting to one side”.

Another witness said he heard a loud bang and saw the bus driver smashing into the door of the bus. He said the bus stopped dead and he heard screaming and shouting.

Mr O'Reilly said he stood over the tests he carried out on the bus in 2005.

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