Monday 19 March 2018

Fatal crash driver denies he was on phone at the time of fatal collision

Gerry Higgins
Gerry Higgins

Paul Deering

A 55-year-old driver of a van which collided head-on into a car near Ballisodare on St Patrick's Day 2015 killing an 84-year-old passenger denied at an Inquest into the death that he had been on his mobile phone at time.

Gerry Higgins of Aclare was giving evidence at the inquest at Sligo Courthouse into the death of Thomas Flanagan from Ballinamallard, County Fermanagh.

The late Mr Flanagan was travelling with his wife, Marie to Enniscrone when their Toyota Auris was struck by a red Peugeot van at Lugnadeffa, Ballisodare which was driven by Mr Higgins who was on his wrong side of the road.

A witness saw him slumped over in the passenger side of the van just before the impact while a cyclist had earlier seen Mr Higgins's van on its incorrect side and narrowly avoiding a collision with another car.

At a recent sitting of Sligo Circuit Court, Mr Higgins received a four year suspended sentence and was banned from driving for life after entering a guilty plea. Judge Keenan Johnson said he believed the cause of the crash was driver fatigue.

At the Inquest last Friday before Coroner, Eamonn McGowan and a jury of four men and two women, evidence of phone usage by Mr Higgins on the morning of the fatal collision was produced by Sergeant Derek Butler, the investigating Garda.

A witness who was driving behind the Flanagans said the collision had occurred at 12.20pm while Sgt Butler told Mr Gabriel Toolan, solicitor for the Flanagan family that records analysed showed that Mr Higgins received a call at 12.16.47 pm and which lasted for two minutes and 26 seconds.

The Sergeant agreed that it appeared Mr Higgins was on the phone right up to the time of the collision.

"The options are that he was either on it or was a mere few seconds off it prior to the collision, " - Mr Toolan.

"That would be correct" - Sgt Butler.

There was also evidence of other calls received or made by Mr Higgins that morning who was travelling from the Dromore West area to Letterkenny to visit his girlfriend, Margaret Boyce.

There was one call at 12.03pm which lasted 377 seconds and another at 11.57 which was for 288 seconds. A total of seven calls were made or received by Mr Higgins since he left Muddy Burns pub at Corbally at 11.24am. The first two and the last one were to Ms Boyce.

Sgt Butler confirmed that Mr Higgins didn't have a handsfree set in his van. Mr Higgins told the Inquest he left his home at 9 - 9.30am that morning and went to Ballina to get diesel having gone to bed the night before at midnight or 1am.

He pulled in at Dromore West to make phonecalls and also had a quick "snooze" then. He didn't know for how long but it could have been for five or ten minutes.

He told Mr Toolan that he did not remember seeing a cyclist at Templeboy who reported his dangerous driving involving another car. Mr Higgins said he would usually pull in if he received a phonecall.

"I wouldn't answer and drive," he said.

It was put to him that he had been on the phone, making or receiving calls for 15 to 20 minutes of the journey between Dromore West and the collision.

"If I got a call I'd say I'd pull in," he said. He did not remember talking to his girlfriend.

It was put to Mr Higgins that it seemed extraordinary that he didn't recall the near miss with the other car or the six other calls on his phone.

"It's quite obvious you were on the phone for the majority of the journey from Dromore West" - Mr Toolan.

"No, whatever you think I wasn't," said Mr Higgins.

"The records show there were seven calls there"- Mr Toolan.

Mr Higgins said the Circuit Court Judge found that he had fallen asleep.

Mr Toolan said he didn't think the learned judge was aware that he had been on the phone for some 20 minutes of his journey.

"I definitely was not on the phone at the time of the accident and I've been saying that from day one. I don't know what happened and I've been saying that from day one," he said.

Mr Toolan told the Coroner that it had only been in the last 15 minutes that the family became aware of the details of the phone records when the evidence was presented to the Inquest.

Mr Higgins pointed out that when stopped at Muddy Burns for breakfast that morning on his journey towards Sligo he only had half a can of cider. A sample of his urine taken at Sligo University Hospital some three hours after the accident showed no presence of alcohol.

Sgt Butler said the sample was taken just within the three hour limit while it would have been four hours since Mr Higgins had drank the can and it would have been gone out of his system.

The witness was replying to Mr Toolan who had asked if it was surprising the analysis showed no alcohol given Mr Higgins' admission of having taken some. Sgt. Butler said everyone was different in terms of breaking down alcohol.

Earlier, Sgt Butler told how he found Mr Higgins' black basic Nokia phone in the passenger foot well of the red Peugeot van. In a deposition read to the Inquest, Mrs Flanagan said weather conditions were perfect as she and her husband travelled to Enniscrone where they intended dropping off a few things to their holiday home.

"We left Ballisodare and we were driving along when all of a sudden there was an impact like a flash. I remember the impact, it was horrendous. I remember being spun around. I don't remember seeing any car coming at me. I just remember the impact. I remember my car being pinned against this bank because I couldn't get my door open. I remember being stuck in the car, it seemed like an eternity," she said.

Kathy Hough, in a deposition read to the Inquest, said she was driving behind the Flanagan's car which was being driven cautiously, braking at bends when there was no need to.

"We were driving along and on the approach to the second turn off for Coolaney at a bend I observed a Peugeot Partner van coming around the bend with the driver slumped over in the passenger seat and the van veering to the wrong side of the road towards the car in front of me.

"The van collided with the Toyota Auris in front of me head-on, spun the car around and put it into the drain in the garden to the left hand side of the road. The van bounced back with the impact and stopped in the middle of the road," she said. The driver of the van was still slumped towards the passenger side of his van. He was not moving and witness thought he was dead.

Rory Egan, in a deposition read to the Inquest, stated he was driving on the N59 towards Sligo having left his home in Beltra and recalled coming on the accident scene after rounding a bend. There was a red van with Gerry Cycles on the side broadside across the road, straddling the white line. The witness rang 999.

Tom Meehan, in a deposition, read to the Inquest said he was out cycling that morning and was passing through Dromore West at around 12.10pm. He went past Templeboy Church when he was overtaken by a red Peugeot van which was "way over on the other side of the road."

"I saw a car coming towards him. The van was still on the wrong side of the road and the oncoming car had to slow down to almost a stop before the van cut across back to his own side of the road. I was a bit shaken by the incident because there was nearly a collision," he said.

Mr Meehan cycled as far as Skreen and over towards Ladies Brae and came back down off the mountain at Beltra Post Office. He turned right back on to the N59 and came to the first turn off for Coolaney when he saw a Garda accident sign. He saw the red van and recognised it as being the one he had come across earlier at Templeboy. "As soon as I stopped I said to the Garda that van passed me earlier on and his driving was bad," said Mr Meehan, who left his details.

Sgt Butler gave evidence of carrying out an investigation into the fatal collision which included the gathering of CCTV from Muddy Burns pub. He was informed by medical staff at the ICU in Sligo University Hospital on March 25th that Mr Higgins was in a critical condition on life support. His blood sugars on arrival on March 17th was 12.2 which would not have induced a diabetic coma. He was taken off life support on April 25th.

Sgt Butler arrested Mr Higgins on August 27th and for the offence of dangerous driving causing death.

A memo of this interview which was a question and answer style was read to the Inquest. Mr Higgins said he didn't recall a lot, only the bang. He wasn't aware that he was completely on the wrong side of the road at the time of the collision.

PSV Inspector P. J. Gallagher gave evidence of carrying out a forensic examination of the scene. Both vehicles were in good serviceable condition prior to the accident and the road surface was good. There were no indicators at the scene which would have allowed him calculate the speed of the vehicles at the time.

The Toyota Auris suffered severe frontal impact, mainly to its right side. There were no skid marks left by either vehicle. The front of the van was definitely fully in the centre of its incorrect lane, said the witness. The Coroner, Mr McGowan read the post mortem report of Dr Francisco Sevilla Chica which stated Mr Flanagan suffered multiple injuries. The doctor concluded Mr Flanagan died due to transection of the spinal cord and pulmonary haemorrhages.

The Coroner urged the jury to return a verdict of death by misadventure in accordance with the medical evidence but after a short deliberation the jury returned with a verdict of accidental death. Mr McGowan extended his sympathy to the Flanagan family saying what had started out as a day trip to Enniscrone had ended in tragedy for them.

"We're not sure if a mobile phone was being used or not and certainly it is a very dangerous proposition to be using a phone while driving as you could end up on the wrong side of the road," he said. Sympathy was also extended to the Flanagan family by the jury foreman and Sgt Philip Maree on behalf of the Gardaí.

Mr Toolan, for the Flanagan family, thanked the emergency services, medical staff at Sligo University Hospital, the Gardaí involved and those who assisted at the scene.

He also thanked those who had come forward and provided facts which were otherwise unavailable tot he family."The family has been plagued with doubts that were unanswered but this process has provided some answers and information leading to some understanding of how this accident occurred," said Mr Toolan.

Sligo Champion