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April 10, 2013

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Fireworks organiser rejects health and safety charge in M5 crash-deaths case

The organiser of a fireworks display next to the scene of a motorway crash in which seven people died and which was described as “one of the worst in living memory” has pleaded not guilty to a health and safety charge in relation to the incident.

Geoffrey Counsell, from Somerset, entered the plea at Bristol Crown Court yesterday (9 April). He is accused of failing to operate the firework display – held on 4 November 2011 at Taunton Rugby Club, next to the M5 motorway – so as to ensure the safety of others who may be affected by it.

The pile-up on the motorway involved 34 vehicles and left seven dead and 51 injured. Following an investigation by Avon and Somerset Police, the Crown Prosecution Service authorised seven charges of manslaughter against Mr Counsell.

However, it dropped those charges in January this year, saying that based on advice it had received from “a leading expert on the law of negligence”, as well as additional information provided by expert witnesses and police investigators, “it has been decided that there is insufficient evidence to continue with a prosecution for manslaughter”.

Barry Hughes, chief Crown prosecutor, said: “Mr Counsell will be charged with an offence under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 [which] carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.”
Speaking in January, Mr Counsell’s barrister, Adrian Darbishire QC*, said his client should never have been charged with manslaughter.

 Following the not-guilty plea entered yesterday, Mr Counsell was bailed ahead of his next appearance at Bristol Crown Court later this year.

* Adrian Darbishire is one of five legal experts in corporate manslaughter taking part in a free SHP webinar on the subject on Tuesday, 23 April – click here for more information.

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Andrew
Andrew
8 years ago

Taunton and the Somerset Levels are notorious fog spots. Drivers have a duty to drive at a speed in which they can react safely to hazards.
This accident occured in one of many patchy fog banks present that evening.
I think the word scapegoat springs to mind.

Andy
Andy
8 years ago

I think for this prosecution the HSE are going to have to prove that the fireworks display was the cause of the crash before they can then go on to require a defence from the accused.
Reasonable doubt – are we sure none of the vehicles had a puncture, was being driven erratically, had a driver asleep at the wheel, is there no chance an animal ran out in front of one of the vehicles causing the driver to swerve ?

Andy
Andy
8 years ago

I think you will find the case is being taken by the local authority who will probably allege that the organiser did not take adequate steps to plan the safety of the event. If your dad was one of the drivers who died would you still be making the same ill thought out comments?

Lets see what the facts are and then comment. As we do not have the facts, no one is in a position to comment on the case.

Andy
Andy
8 years ago

Ah yes. CPS can take action under health and safety legislation if it is part of a more serious case eg manslaughter. It will be worth watching how this one pans out.

Andy
Andy
8 years ago

I went drove onto that section of motorway about 30 minutes before the crash occured.
The weather was horrible. I was driving and the fog went from patchy to thick and back again in the matter of a few metres there was never any consistancy. It was like that for quite a way up the M5 however I do seem to remember that just after getting into the motorway at Tauton the fog was particularly thick. Whether this was a fault of the fireworks I can’t say.

Bill
Bill
8 years ago

AndyN, good point, My thought would be that since this is now health and safety, that it is not the HSE’s burden to prove anything but the defendant role to show “so far as reasonably practicable” that what was done was all that is required. With hindsight the defendant along with the local authority and event organisers may I suspect not arrange another display in the same place again. As such the question of Foreseeability may be asked.

Bob
Bob
8 years ago

I would imagine that the RA identifed the proximity to the Motorway?

And if approved by the LA as is required for a public display, why is only he being pursued ?

Have other fire work displays been undertaken in similar proximity to motorways?

What is the guidance on such proximity?

Fire works are known to become irratic, and visual impact upon road users is a foreseeable risk..

I glad it is not me attempting to defend myself.

The public interest element is high value ?

Dribkram
Dribkram
8 years ago

Circumstantial and anecdotal evidence at best how this has made it this far is beyond me. This will be thrown out unless the HSE sees sense and drops the charges.

Kirkmcarter
Kirkmcarter
8 years ago

Manslaughter? What were they thinking? How was anyone going to prove that anything from the fireworks or smoke caused any deaths, in thick fog? I’m guessing the only reason the CPS are continuing is that the RA was inadequate, or someone did something they shouldn’t have. Unless they have a witness account from the first vehicle involved they’re going nowhere.

Nicholas
Nicholas
8 years ago

Just because the case is being taken under HSWA this does not mean HSE is the prosecuting authority. It looks from the information given that this case is being taken by CPS. So comments about what HSE should be or should not be doing are misplaced.

Safetylady
Safetylady
8 years ago

Mystery to me how this case has got this far – at what cost to Mr Counsell?

There have always been pile-ups on motorways in fog (don’t always need fog either) and probably always will be, sadly.

Shpeditor
Shpeditor
8 years ago

To clarify – it is still the CPS that is taking this case, not the HSE nor the Local Authority.