Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

'Blackout' driver jailed over road death

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A woman who blacked out while driving and killed a young mother-of-two in a car crash has been sentenced to 15 months in prison.


Ordering 47-year-old Mary McLaughlin to serve five months in jail and the rest of her sentence on supervised licence conditions, Belfast Crown Court Judge Gordon Kerr QC said he was giving her a "significant discount" for her medical condition but added that given the fact it was her history of blackouts that caused the fatal crash in the first place, "I don't think that she can evade a prison sentence".

Banning McLaughlin from driving for ten years, the judge said she would have to resit her test again but that "I do not think that she will ever be medically fit to drive".

At the end of her trial last May, the jury of four men and eight women unanimously convicted McLaughlin of causing the death of 27-year-old Rebecca McManus by dangerous driving on October 7 2010.

They also found her guilty to causing grievous bodily injury to the four other people in the car.

During the week long hearing the jury heard how McLaughlin suffered a blackout at the wheel of her Vauxhall Zafira people carrier as she exited the M5 roundabout and crashed into a Ford Focus car driven by Karen Banks.

Tragically, mother-of-two Rebecca, who had been a rear seat passenger, was killed instantly in the side-on impact while the others in the car sustained pelvic fractures as well as other numerous injuries.

The five friends had just left the nearby Northern Regional College and were on their way to McDonalds for lunch.

Witnesses to the fatal crash described how mother-of-three McLaughlin, from Dillons Avenue in Newtownabbey was "slumped" behind the wheel with her eyes closed and "drooling".

She told both witnesses and police at the scene that she suffered from blackouts.

It was the Crown case that despite being issued a three-year licence from the DVLNI, McLaughlin "knew very well it was dangerous [for her to drive] and that she carried on regardless of that danger".

McLaughlin herself gave tearful evidence on her own behalf  that she "would never" have driven if she did not feel safe to do so.

She claimed that despite suffering from repeated blackouts since 2004, a medical conditon which resulted in her being medically retired from her finance job at the Northern Trust, she had come to know the warning signs of an oncoming attack.

During his sentencing remarks today, Judge Kerr described how McLaughlin had told her doctor she had warning signs before any blackout attack but that on application forms for Disability Living Allowances, she repeatedly stated that due to "no warning blackouts I need help to avoid injuring myself" and only ventured out when absolutely necessary.

The judge said that the fact no doctor had told her not to drive was "quite astounding".

"It seems to me that it was the view of the jury that if the doctor had the same history as the DLA the advice to the licencing authority would have been different," he told the court adding that when McLaughlin suffered a blackout at the wheel "it would be hard to imagine a greater danger to other road users".

Turning to aggravating and mitigating factors in the case, Judge Kerr said the fact that McLaughlin drove while medically unfit, had killed one and injured four made the offence all the worse but that in mitigation, she had shown genuine remorse, had a completely clear record and a good working record.

In handing down the 15 month jail term, Judge Kerr said passing sentence in such cases where the court is faced with a mature person with a clear record for punishment is "intrinsically difficult" but that no sentence would measure the worth of Rebecca's life or memory or the effects on the other victims.

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