The coroner for West Somerset recently ruled that smoke from a firework display did not cause a crash on the M5 near Taunton that killed seven people.
The motorway pile-up involving 34 cars happened in thick fog in November 2011 near to Taunton Rugby Club which was holding a firework display approximately 200 yards from the motorway. The aftermath of the crash saw organiser Geoffrey Counsell, who ran Firestorm Pyrotechnics, accused of manslaughter and Health and Safety breaches before eventually being cleared of all the charges.
This tragic case highlights the importance of public safety considerations for individuals and businesses engaged in activities that could potentially put the public at risk.
Manslaughter and Health and Safety
Following the terrible accident in 2011, Geoffrey Counsel was charged with seven counts of manslaughter but in 2013 those charges were dropped. He was then charged with failing to ensure public safety under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Mr Justice Simon in the Bristol Crown Court directed a jury to a not guilty verdict on the basis that the prosecution’s case relied too heavily on hindsight. He stated that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the defendant should have foreseen the risk of firework smoke mixing with the fog to create a thick smog and ordered an acquittal.
It is understood that Mr Counsel was a member of the British Pyrotechnists Association and that The Highways Agency, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Constabulary were consulted before the event.
Following the case, a coroner’s inquest was held to try and establish what had actually happened. Deaths are reported to the coroner in a variety of circumstances if the cause of death is unknown or if it is unexplained or unnatural. The coroner must then hold an inquest if the cause of death still remains unknown or where people have died violently or unnaturally.
Coroner Michael Rose concluded that the deaths were the result of a road traffic accident and in doing so stated: "I dismiss smoke being the cause of the crash." Although he added: "I cannot exclude the possibility that smoke may have added to the intensity of the reduced visibility."
The coroner ordered a number of government departments including the Health and Safety Executive and the Highways Agency along with other organisations to meet with him to consider measures to avoid a similar incident in the future.
The outcome of the case is doubtless a huge relief to the defendant in this case. Notwithstanding that, it appears Mr Counsel had made efforts to organise the event carefully but charges were still brought. That should serve as a warning to organisations that fail to take the health and safety of employees or the public seriously enough when going about their business.