Families dismayed as trial of trawler owner collapses
UK – Drowning tragedy not manslaughter, says judge Gerard Seenan
The families of seven fishermen killed in the sinking of the Solway Harvester reacted with dismay yesterday when the manslaughter trial of the boat’s owner collapsed. Richard Gidney, the company’s director, had faced seven counts of manslaughter at the high court in Douglas, Isle of Man. But the case was halted at the close of the prosecution evidence yesterday afternoon after the trial judge, the acting deemster Andrew Moran QC, ruled that there was no case to answer.
The Solway Harvester went down in gale-force winds in the Irish Sea, 11 miles off the coast of the Isle of Man, on January 11 2000. The loss of her seven crew, including two brothers and their cousin, devastated the remote villages that make up the Machars, in Dumfries and Galloway.
Accident investigators uncovered 11 serious safety breaches on the boat, but Mr Moran said: “The evidence put before the jury is insufficient to establish that there was any lack of care, particularly regarding what was the common and accepted practice of the vessels at the time.”
The prosecutors had alleged that the Solway Harvester was put to sea with a catalogue of faults, including a broken flood alarm and a missing deck cover. The trial heard that, although the boat had a history of flooding, the bilge pump to clear flood water was inoperable, and watertight doors were tied open.
The vessl’s skipper, Andrew Mills, 29, who was known as Craig, died alongside his brother, Robin, 33, and cousin, David, 18, when the ship went down. Crew members Martin Milligan, 26, John Murphy, 22, David Lyons, 17, and Wesley Jolly, 17, also died.
The seven men came from the three neighbouring villages of Garlieston, Whithorn, and the Isle of Whithorn.
Mr Gidney denied being responsible for the deaths by being grossly negligent in sending the 21 metre boat to sea in an unseaworthy state. Speaking outside the court, he said: “What is sad is that after all this time we are still none the wiser as to what happened with the Solway Harvester. In many ways, I regret that we have not been able to put forward our side of the case.”
After the trial’s collapse, John and Elizabeth Milligan, parents of Martin Milligan, said their hope that the trial would help them put the tragedy behind them had been dashed. Mr Milligan said: “This big question that’s been hanging over our lives for the past five years is never going to go away.
“Why did our son die?”
Hazel Murphy, mother of crewman John, said: “We did not want retribution, we just wanted to find out why our son died. The last five years have been a living hell.”
Dismissing the case, Mr Moran criticised several areas of the prosecution evidence. He said that after a flood on a sister ship, the Tobrach-N, Mr Gidney had demonstrated “proactive and safety-conscious conduct” and could not be held responsible for the safety breaches on board the Solway Harvester.
There was no evidence by which a jury could conclude that the defendant’s conduct departed in any way from what was to be expected, “and certainly it could not be determined as criminal”, he said.
Alex Currie, the local minister, said: “We’d always hoped that a trial would bring some closure to the tragedy, to the disaster that was the sinking of the Solway Harvester. But my initial reaction is that this closure will not now happen.”
Guardian Unlimited – UK