Suspended sentence for fireman over deadly stampede

A fireman who provoked a herd of cows to stampede and crush a farmer, by driving towards them with his engine's lights flashing and its siren blaring, has been given a four-month suspended prison sentence and banned from driving for 12 months.

Julian Lawford of the Devon and Somerset Fire Service was found to have caused the death of Harold Lee, 75, by dangerous driving.

Bristol Crown Court heard that Lawford had been responding to an emergency call in August 2009, where a seven-year-old child had become trapped in a car following a road accident, when his vehicle was stopped in its tracks by Mr Lee's group of dairy cows on a country road in Burtle, Somerset.

The farmer was on a quad bike at the back of his herd, which numbered between 100 and 150 animals, moving them from a field to their milking parlour. Mr Lee's son, Richard, was in front of them on a bicycle.

Initially Lawford turned off his vehicle's lights and siren before trying to reverse to find an alternative route. However, his efforts to avoid the herd did not work and he was soon stuck behind them again. This time he opted to switch on his engine's lights and siren and drive through the animals.

Mr Lee frantically waved his arms, trying to encourage the animals to move forward, but was unable to get out of the way of the stampeding cattle and was trampled. He was found with blood gushing from a wound to his head and with stamp marks across his body, and died from his injuries in Bristol's Frenchay Hospital six days later.

In their fright, the startled animals even ran over the top of a car. Prosecuting barrister David Morgan said Jenny Holloway, a learner driver who witnessed the incident, "thought the cows would go around her vehicle. In fact they went over the top and the hoof of one of the beasts went through the windscreen before falling into the road."

Lawford was originally charged with manslaughter by gross negligence, but this was reduced after he admitted a lesser charge shortly before his trial last month. Passing sentence, Mr Justice Roderick Evans said the fireman's decision to try to drive through the herd "frankly defies common sense".

"It must have been obvious to you that you couldn't drive through but that is what you tried to do," he said. "There is some evidence you sounded your klaxon horn, but you deny that. That decision to drive forward through that herd was a fatal error of judgment which has had a profound effect upon two decent hard working families, the Lee family and yours."

Richard Smith, QC, defending, said: "The effect on [Lawford] privately has been immense and profound and that is a burden that he will have to bear. He was trying to do the right thing but he got it wrong this time."

Mr Lee is one of a number of people who have been killed or injured by charging cows in recent years. A 63-year-old woman died while walking her dog through a field of cattle in July 2009, while the former Home Secretary David Blunkett suffered a broken rib during a similar incident a month earlier.

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