Bus company and 'fatigued' driver, 77, face sentencing over crash into supermarket

Will Metcalfe
Contributor

Families of people who died in a double-decker bus crash have spoken of their “indescribable” pain ahead of the sentencing of the driver and his former employer.

Midland Red (South) is facing an unlimited fine over a crash in Coventry in which a “fatigued” 77-year-old driver ploughed into a supermarket, killing a pedestrian and a young passenger.

The firm, which is part of the Stagecoach Group, pleaded guilty last year to offences contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act by permitting Kailash Chander to continue working despite warnings about his driving.

The Stockport-based company and Chander are being sentenced in a two-day hearing at Birmingham Crown Court, which started on Monday.

Kailash Chander and Midland Red (South) will be sentenced on Tuesday for a crash which left a seven-year-old boy and a pensioner dead when a bus crashed into Sainbury’s in Coventry city centre. (West Midlands Police)

A trial at the court which ended in September heard that Chander mistook the accelerator for the brake before the crash in October 2015, in what was described in court as a “gross” failure by the driver.

Chander, a former mayor of Leamington Spa, was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial due to dementia.

But a jury at a finding-of-fact trial ruled that Chander, now 80, was driving dangerously when he killed primary school pupil Rowan Fitzgerald, seven, and 76-year-old pedestrian Dora Hancox.

The six-day trial was told that Chander had been warned about his “erratic” driving by his employer after four crashes in the previous three years.

Kailash Chander. A bus company is facing an unlimited fine over a crash in which the “fatigued” then 77-year-old driver ploughed into a supermarket, killing a pedestrian and a young passenger. (PA)

An expert told the court Chander may have been suffering from undiagnosed dementia – without showing symptoms to colleagues – at the time of the crash.

In a statement issued after the earlier hearing, Rowan’s family described the Midland Red (South) decision to allow Chander to drive for such lengthy periods as “total stupidity”.

During Monday’s hearing, prosecutor Andrew Thomas QC read victim impact statements from Rowan’s grandmother Barbara Fitzgerald, as the boy’s mother Natasha Wilson wept in the public gallery.

Mrs Fitzgerald said: “He was a beautiful, friendly little boy with a cheeky smile and a mischievous nature.”

The aftermath of a crash in Coventry which killed a seven-year-old boy and a pensioner.

Rowan’s mother, in her statement, said: “He had a heart of gold – he was our sunshine on hard days. He made life full of laughter.

“The pain is indescribable – some days we feel paralysed. Some days we don’t want to live any more.”

Dora Hancox’s daughters, Wendy and Katrina, also had statements read to court.

Katrina said her mother had battled kidney disease and the loss of her husband before her death.

She added: “I’m heartbroken that my mother’s life was taken away from us. I feel cheated as I never got to say goodbye to her.”

Representing Chander, barrister Robert Smith, in mitigation, told the court his client now needed full-time care from his daughter’s family.

Mr Smith added: “He served as a councillor in Leamington for many years and was on the board of governors of a local school for many years.

“His character has been exemplary and he has had a strong work ethic.”

The jury in the finding-of-fact trial found that Chander, now 80, was driving dangerously at the time of the crash. (SWNS)

Since the crash, he added: “He experiences feelings of worthlessness and reduced self esteem, preoccupied with the consequences of the accident, and traumatised as a result.

During mitigation for Midland Red, the company’s barrister Richard Atkins QC repeatedly apologised on behalf of the company bosses for the firm’s failings, and two senior directors were present throughout the hearing.

He said: “May I first of all offer apologies, deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to the families of Dora Hancox and Rowan Fitzgerald.

“Our apologies to all those injured and who were otherwise involved or had to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy.”

He added the company had co-operated with the police and Health and Safety Executive investigation and was “well-run” with an otherwise good safety record.

The firm, which runs 450 buses and turned over £98 million in 2016/17, employed 1,200 people, and carried 25 million passengers a year, added the barrister.

He said: “This is not a fly-by-night concern.

“It has a hitherto good health and safety record that is accepted by the prosecution and a positive attitude to health and safety.”

He added the company had made more than a dozen changes to policies and procedures since the crash, in some cases going beyond what it was legally obliged to do.

Judge Paul Farrer QC is due to hand down his sentences on Tuesday.