Drunk airman's widow wins pounds 160,000 damages: Royal Navy man 'not properly cared for after party at base'

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THE WIDOW of a Royal Navy airman who died after a heavy drinking session won pounds 160,000 damages from the Ministry of Defence yesterday in an important breakthrough against government secrecy.

The MoD was strongly criticised by Judge Andrew Phelan, who said that Terence Barrett would probably be alive if he had been properly cared for after a party at the Royal Navy shore base at Bardufoss in Norway.

The amount of drunkenness at the base, which one witness said was encouraged by the commanding officer, was described as 'a perfectly deplorable situation' by Judge Phelan.

Mr Barrett died after a party to celebrate his 30th birthday and promotion in January 1988. He drank at least nine double Bacardis and four cans of cider and eventually collapsed unconscious and vomited. He was carried to his bunk where he was watched intermittently and later found dead. The cause of death was asphyxia due to inhaling his own vomit. The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Hugh Lomas, was severely reprimanded by a court martial.

Mr Barret's widow, Dawn, who was left to bring up their son Liam, now six, sued the MoD alleging breach of a common law duty of care. But first she had to go to court to fight government secrecy.

The MoD refused to release the 260-page report of the Board of Inquiry into the incident and told Mrs Barrett, from Yeovil, Somerset, that she could only have a 10-page summary. The ministry said the full version contained sensitive material.

In a test case, Mr Justice Popplewell ruled that Mrs Barrett was not entitled to see the report because she had ample other evidence, but rejected the MoD's claim that such documents should remain secret on grounds of public interest immunity.

This opened the way for publication of hitherto secret reports and was hailed as a step towards freedom of information. The ruling also enabled Mrs Barrett to obtain the report later after she had served a writ.

The MoD denied liability at the High Court in March but yesterday Judge Phelan found that there had been 'a failure to enforce the standards the defendants themselves set out in matters of discipline'.

He added that Mr Barrett was 'so inadequately cared for that he died' but reduced the damages by 25 per cent to pounds 160,651 to reflect the dead man's share of responsibility.

Mrs Barrett said that she was 'delighted with the outcome' and called for the MoD to control the availability of alcohol to servicemen and make more information available to dependants and accident victims.

She said that even after the Board of Inquiry's report was released her solicitors discovered that there was a further ship's investigation report 'which the Ministry of Defence had previously claimed did not exist'.

Douglas Stewart, her solicitor, said: 'This has been a widow's fight to get at the truth against difficulties created by the Ministry of Defence. It should not have taken five years for the truth to have come out.'

An MoD spokesman said that the judgment was being studied before any decision on an appeal was taken.

(Photograph omitted)