A mother-of-four was crushed to death by a runaway bus because the driver wanted to keep it warm for passengers, a court heard on Thursday.
Craigavon Crown Court heard that seconds after 35-year-old James Johnston got off his bus at Lisburn station, it shot forward up and over the kerb, pinning Charlotte Linda Stewart between the bus and a wall.
Prosecuting QC Charles MacCreanor told the court that as a result of the injuries the 48-year-old sustained, “unconsciousness would’ve happened rapidly and death shortly thereafter”.
He also claimed Johnston had tried to cover up how he caused the accident.
On the morning his trial was due to start last month Johnston, a father-of-one from Killowen Grange in Lisburn, pleaded guilty to Mrs Stewart’s manslaughter on December 29, 2014.
In court Johnston appeared extremely emotional throughout the 90-minute hearing as the prosecution opened the facts and defence QC Arthur Harvey described it as “an appalling tragedy”.
Mr MacCreanor told the court how at about 10.20am, Johnston’s bus parked in bay one at Lisburn bus station. He let his passengers off before getting off himself but “within seconds” Mrs Stewart had been killed.
He described how there was “extensive CCTV footage” which was viewed privately in the judge’s chambers, which showed Johnston using what he called a “third foot” to keep the accelerator pedal wedged down.
The third foot, also known as an “extra foot”, was used by drivers as part of their daily safety checks so that they could turn the ignition on, but not the engine, and check if their brake lights were working.
The court heard that buses have a safety feature that if they’re left idling, they automatically switch off within four minutes and also that when the doors are open, a “halt brake” is automatically engaged and the accelerator disconnected.
When they’re closed however, that halt brake is automatically disengaged and the accelerator reconnected.
Mr MacCreanor said that from the CCTV footage, Johnston’s bus could be heard “revving” before it shot forward, adding that “the operation of wedging down the accelerator pedal overcame that automatic shut off” so when Johnston closed the doors behind him, the bus “overcame the hand brake and the bus propelled forward”.
Referring to the CCTV footage, he said that “in the aftermath” Johnston “ran” back to the bus, got into the driver’s seat and “removed the third foot”.
“We say at that stage it does become important because that is the defendant removing the third foot from where he placed it in appreciating the consequences of that and we asked the court to reflect that,” submitted the senior QC.
Interviewed a few weeks later, Johnston “made no admissions” and instead, “spoke of problems he said he had with the brakes on buses,” that he was aware of the automatic cut off but “wasn’t aware of anything that would stop it cutting off”.
While he accepted he had lifted the third foot, “he made the case that he definitely would not have put it on the accelerator because he said ‘you are just asking for trouble with that’,” revealed Mr MacCreanor.
“We say that account needed full investigation in the circumstances and that wasn’t a full and frank account to the police and he did not tell the truth about some of the things he claimed.”
He further revealed that a forensic examination of the bus’s tachograph uncovered that the third foot had been “applied to the accelerator” on two occasions when “he left the bus and it was idling”.
“The defendant has accepted his gross negligence in respect of this case by his plea and that acceptance of responsibility is important and it’s important to the family but the court should remember that it came very late in the day,“ said Mr MacCreanor.
The lawyer revealed that Johnston conceded to a probation officer that he had used the third foot in a similar way before.
Mr Harvey, counsel for Johnston, said Mrs Stewart had entered the bus station by a vehicle only access, that there were no bollards erected in front of bus parking bays and that it was unknown to Johnston the bus handbrake would not be strong enough to keep it lurching forward.
He said Johnston now suffered from depression and been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Mr Harvey said the sole purpose of keeping the bus running “was to keep the bus warm so that his passengers would be warm” on a winter’s day.
The defence called two character witnesses to give evidence, Robbie Butler UUP MLA and fellow bus driver Derek Moffett.
Mr Moffett recalled an incident where Johnston stopped his bus when he saw a woman being “savagely beaten” by a man.
Judge Lynch adjourned passing sentence to next Friday.