Wednesday 6 July 2011

The sciatica defence

Carlton Lewars, 60, of Gladstone Avenue, Tottenham, north London walked free from Southwark Crown Court after prosecutors offered no evidence against him.

He had been accused of causing death by dangerous driving after his bus hit Jayne Helliwell, from Braunston in Northamptonshire, as she cycled along Oxford Street in the West End of London in April last year.

Mr Lewars claimed that a sudden attack of sciatic pain meant that he could not control his foot at the time of the crash, and so was pressing the accelerator pedal rather than the brake.

Prosecutor Barry Gregory explained that the CPS had decided to offer no evidence in the case because “it is not now sure that the prosecution could reach the high standard of proving, so that the jury would be sure, that Mr Lewars drove far below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver given those medical circumstances in which it has already been shown that he would not have been able to forsee the sciatica coming on in the way in which it did, causing him to press the accelerator rather than to press or try to press the brake.”

Mr Lewars’ bus hit Miss Helliwell’s bike and then collided with another bus, before hitting a bus shelter.

Sciatica is a very common medical condition. If sciatica is accepted by the British judicial system as a condition which may result in loss of control of body functions, with lethal consequences for other road users, then plainly no one who suffers from sciatica should be permitted to drive any vehicle, whether a private car or a company vehicle.

As things stand this killer driver is perfectly free to continue driving.

This case echoes that of another recent one involving a cyclist hit and killed by a driver:

An investigation found she had made a 40-second mobile phone call to her husband three minutes before the crash, but there was no evidence she made a call at the time of the collision.

She was charged with causing death by dangerous driving and pleaded not guilty at a hearing last year.

In a dramatic turnaround at a pre-trial hearing yesterday Mrs Johnson sobbed as the case against her was dropped after the judge heard she had probably suffered a reflex syncope or faint.

In that case there was no evidence of a pre-existing medical condition nor any conclusive evidence that the killer driver had suffered from ‘a reflex syncope’ (there were other explanations available, the plausibility of which was reinforced by tangible evidence that the killer driver had been on a mobile phone shortly before she killed the cyclist). But again a hypothetical medical explanation was forwarded by the defence, never tested before a jury, and a killer driver was free to breeze out of court and get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and continue driving.

In cases like these, killer drivers get it both ways. They are spared a trial and exonerated from all responsibility for killing a cyclist, but despite allegedly being prone to a medical condition which incapacitates them with lethal consequences for other road users, they are permitted to continue driving.

This, it seems to me, is NOT JUSTICE. A lifetime driving ban in such cases would offer some small consolation to bereaved families. (Who knows, it might well be that if a mandatory lifetime driving ban was made a condition of a medical defence being accepted in cases of this sort, then some killer drivers might actually prefer not to use this defence.)

Mind you, justice is not the word that springs to mind regarding the kinds of sentences imposed when there is a conviction.