Wednesday, December 11, 2013

'I was just a scapegoat': Fury of firework display contractor as he is CLEARED of causing motorway crash which killed seven

A fireworks organiser accused of causing a motorway crash that killed seven and injured 51 says the authorities wanted 'someone to blame' as he was cleared of breaching health and safety law yesterday.

A judge directed a jury at Bristol Crown Court to find Geoffrey Counsell, 51, not guilty of a single charge of failing to ensure the safety of others contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Seven people died in a massive motorway pile-up involving more than 30 cars when they were engulfed by a thick fog on the M5 near Taunton at around 8.20pm on November 4 2011.

The smog was so thick that motorists on the northbound carriageway likened it to having a tin of paint thrown over their windscreens.

Geoffrey Counsell, 51, said he believed the decision to prosecute him was 'motivated by a desire to find someone to blame for this terrible accident, simply for the sake of doing so'.

Speaking outside Bristol Crown Court, he said: 'I would like to start by expressing my sympathy to all those who were affected by the terrible crash on November 4 2011.

'I have been through an appalling experience over the last two years, yet I recognise that my misfortune is as nothing compared with that of those bereaved and injured as a result of that accident.

Judge Justice Simon, who directed the jury at Bristol Crown Court to return a verdict of not guilty, said: 'The prosecution case required Mr Counsell to appreciate and react more or less instantly to something not thought to be a hazard to anyone and had no previous reason to think it was a hazard.'

He added: 'There was no proper basis that you could have concluded that a reasonable person would have appreciated a reasonable risk and reacted to it to stop the display.'

Mr Counsell was in charge of the massive event at a rugby club which saw 1,500 rockets fired during a 15 minute display.

Through his solicitor, Gavin Reese, Mr Counsell said outside court: 'Before a final decision to go ahead with the display was taken, the Highways Agency, the Taunton Deane Borough Council and the Avon and Somerset Constabulary were consulted.

'All were informed of the fact and nature of the display. No objection of any kind was raised. As matters transpired, the Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Constabulary were to be the agencies which prosecuted me in respect of that same display.

'The display was carried out without incident. It was a very foggy night and the fireworks produced some smoke, which would have mingled with the fog.

'However, I saw nothing to cause me to believe that any firework smoke would cause a hazard and I do not believe that it did so'.

Mr Counsell continued: 'The prosecution case against me was based on the suggestion that I should have recognised the risk of something occurring which has never been shown to have happened before, which probably did not happen, and risk of which was not recognised by anyone else.

'The judge noted when he ruled that there was no case to answer, the prosecution case was 'heavily weighted with hindsight".

'As many people will be aware, the assistant chief constable of Avon and Somerset Constabulary Mr (Anthony) Bangham appeared on national television less than 48 hours after the crash to advance the police belief that smoke from the display had caused the crash.

'Hours before the pronouncement was made, officers from Avon and Somerset Constabulary had unlawfully obtained a warrant to search my home, as the judge found during the trial.

'The unlawful search of my home took place despite the fact that I had previously expressly confirmed to the police my willingness to co-operate with their inquiry in any way.

'The current proceedings were brought jointly by the Avon and Somerset Constabulary and Taunton Deane Borough Council. Prior to the proceedings being brought, those representing me wrote to Taunton Deane Borough Council highlighting the obvious flaws in the case.

'Those concerns were simply ignored. Again, in August of this year, those representing me set out in court documents the very issues which caused the case to come to a halt. Nevertheless, the prosecution continued.

'I am obviously extremely relieved that I have been cleared of any blame for this terrible crash. So, whilst I am very relieved that, more than two years later, my ordeal is over, I continue to feel that my prosecution was motivated by a desire to find someone to blame for this terrible accident, simply for the sake of doing so.'

It was alleged that Mr Counsell, of Ashill in Somerset, failed to ensure he operated the firework display so as to ensure, as far as was reasonably practicable, that others who might be affected were not exposed to risks to their health and safety.

Mr Counsell was originally charged with seven counts of manslaughter but they were dropped earlier this year and instead he faced the health and safety charge.

Mr Counsell, who ran Firestorm Pyrotechnics, was the contractor hired by Taunton Rugby Club to run the £3,000 display at its ground, which was watched by 1,000 people.

He set off 1,500 shots as part of his Jupiter Display in 15 minutes - just 200 yards from the motorway.

In a leaflet promoting his business, the experienced Mr Counsell described the display as the 'biggest and most lavish' piece of 'unforgettable' pyrotechnics he offered.

Original report here




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