Fireworks contractor Geoffrey Counsell tells of relief as he is cleared over foggy night M5 crash deaths

Man in charge of a fireworks display held on the night of a massive motorway crash in which seven people died and 51 were injured has been cleared of breaching health and safety laws

Tuesday 10 December 2013 14:17
Fireworks contractor Geoffrey Counsell, 51, (right) with a member of his legal team, Gavin Reese (centre), outside Bristol Crown Court where he was cleared of  breaching health and safety laws in relation to a firework display held on the night of a massi
Fireworks contractor Geoffrey Counsell, 51, (right) with a member of his legal team, Gavin Reese (centre), outside Bristol Crown Court where he was cleared of breaching health and safety laws in relation to a firework display held on the night of a massi

The firework contractor in charge of a display held on the night of a motorway crash in which seven people died and 51 were injured spoke of his relief today at being cleared of breaching health and safety laws.

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."

A judge directed the jury to find Mr Counsell not guilty of a single charge of failing to ensure the safety of others contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The charge 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.

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

Mr Justice Simon ruled yesterday that Mr Counsell had "no case to answer" following an application from the defendant's barrister made at the halfway point in the trial.

The judge said the prosecution's case was based on "hindsight" and there was not sufficient evidence to show that Mr Counsell ought to have foreseen that smoke from the display could have drifted and mixed with fog to create thick smog.

Speaking through his solicitor, Gavin Reese, Mr Counsell said: "I am obviously hugely relieved that this prosecution of me is now at an end.

"I would, however, like to say something about my experience of this case.

"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.

"As the judge noted in his ruling, the prosecution case was founded on criticism of me for 'failing to take a step which had never been taken before'.

"It is perhaps relevant to note that there were around 1,000 people at the display, including serving police and fire officers. Not a single one of those people raised any concern at the time about the smoke or fog, whether during or after the display.

"Firework displays have taken placed in this country for centuries. The chemical composition of fireworks has not changed for hundreds of years. All fireworks produce smoke.

"However, nowhere in any training or guidance is it suggested that firework smoke presents an actual or potential danger of any kind.

"The current authoritative guidance from the Health and Safety Executive contains no reference to any risk posed by firework smoke, whether on its own or in combination with fog.

"The same applies to guidance produced by other official bodies and indeed current guidance provided by the Taunton Deane Borough Council.

"The prosecution experts spent two years investigating the possible causes of the crash, including the interaction between firework smoke and fog. There were unable to find a single example of a case in which firework smoke had previously been shown to pose a danger.

"The conclusion of the principal prosecution witness was only that the probability of any link between the display and the crash was 'weak to moderate'.

"As Mr Justice Simon told the jury this morning, the prosecution case was based upon 'hindsight and consequence rather than foresight and risk'."

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 today. Nevertheless, the prosecution continued.

"I am obviously extremely relieved that today 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."

Grandparents Anthony and Pamela Adams, from Newport, South Wales; father and daughter Michael and Maggie Barton, from Windsor, Berkshire; battle re-enactor Malcolm Beacham, from Woolavington, Somerset; and lorry drivers Terry Brice, from South Gloucestershire, and Kye Thomas, from Cornwall, died and 51 people were injured, including some seriously, in the pile-up.

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

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.

Witnesses described seeing the smoke drift across the nearby carriageway.

Peter Blair QC, prosecuting, told the jury: "Essentially, the prosecution say they experienced a loss of visibility, generated, we say, by a plume of smoke created by Mr Counsell from his firework display which had built up.

"It was dispersed because of the lack of wind mixed with the humid air and drifted in the direction of the motorway.

"We say people were exposed to an appreciable risk to their personal safety that night as a consequence of the way Mr Counsell prepared for and then went about his business.

"We say that ensuring the safety of people using that motorway needed particular care if you were going to undertake a big firework display involving the use of a substantial volume of these hazardous explosives, which generated a lot of smoke.

"Smoke can have an appreciable effect on reducing visibility - that should be obvious. It didn't take long from the build-up of smoke to the dramatic loss of visibility.

"We say if he had adequately undertaken his health and safety properly, some or all of the consequences which unfolded on November 4 may have been avoided."

Adrian Darbishire QC, representing Mr Counsell, said witnesses described seeing smoke drifting away from the motorway.

"You will see many witnesses are absolutely clear that what they saw, and indeed in some cases what they drove through, was not smoke nor smog but fog," he said.

Elaine Adams, from Barry, South Wales, and daughter of Mr and Mrs Adams, said: "I am speaking on behalf of all the families here and we are all absolutely devastated.

"We feel that things should have gone a little bit further and the judge should have made more of an informed decision.

"I am really upset. I am very, very cross about what happened.

"I am just devastated and I am really upset and, to be honest, as much as there has been a picture brought up over the last few weeks, there is still a lot of confusion.

"I think a lot of money has been wasted and I think there are things that could have been done that haven't been done.

"I would have liked to have seen the defence witnesses before the case was stopped."

Ms Adams said she still believed it was right to bring the prosecution.

"I think perhaps health and safety are at fault for their guidance. Despite having evidence, their guidance is not clear," she said.

Additional reporting PA

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