M5 firework man cleared over crash
The organiser of a fireworks display held on the night of a fatal pile-up on the M5 has spoken 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".
Seven people died and 51 were injured in the injured in the crash, which involved 34 vehicles and has been described as one of the worst British motorway incidents in memory.
Mr Counsell was charged with failing to ensure the safety of others, contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act, in connection with the tragedy which happened on November 4, 2011.
Prosecutors claimed smoke had "built up" during Mr Counsell's 15-minute fireworks display at Taunton Rugby Club before drifting across the nearby motorway - engulfing cars in "thick smog".
But today a jury formally returned a not guilty verdict for the single charge, after a judge ruled Mr Counsell had "no case to answer" at Bristol Crown Court.
Speaking outside the court, Mr Counsell, of Ashill, Somerset, first expressed his "sympathy for all those who were affected by the terrible crash".
"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," he said.
Mr Counsell was originally charged with seven counts of manslaughter, but these were dropped earlier this year and he instead faced the health and safety charge.
A jury heard how a series of horrific collisions began on the south bound carriageway at 8.20pm on November 4 2011 - minutes after the £3,000 fireworks display concluded just 200ft away.
Yesterday, Mr Justice Simon ruled Mr Counsell had "no case to answer" as the prosecution's case had been based on "hindsight".
The judge said there was insufficient evidence to show Mr Counsell ought to have foreseen that smoke from the display could have drifted and mixed with fog to create thick smog.
His ruling - described by family members of victims as "devastating" - followed an application by Mr Counsell's legal team at the halfway point in the trial.
Speaking through his solicitor, Gavin Reese, Mr Counsell said: "I am obviously hugely relieved that this prosecution of me is now at an end."
Mr Counsell said the Highways Agency, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police had all been consulted before the display in 2011.
"All were informed of the fact and nature of the display," Mr Counsell said. "No objection of any kind was raised."
The fireworks organiser, who ran Firestorm Pyrotechnics, said the display was carried out "without incident" though it was a "very foggy night", with firework smoke mingling 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," Mr Counsell said.
"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'.
"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."
Mr Counsell said that there was no suggestion "in any training guide or guidance" that firework smoke presents an "actual or potential danger of any kind".
"I am obviously extremely relieved that today I have been cleared of any blame for this terrible crash," Mr Counsell concluded.
"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.
Witnesses told the jury that the fog was so thick it was like having a tin of paint thrown over the car windscreens.
Minutes before the pile-up, more than 1,000 people had watched Mr Counsell set off 1,500 shots as part of his 15-minute Jupiter Display at Taunton Rugby Club.
The jury heard from motorists on the M5 and those attending the display, some of whom described watching the smoke "build up and up" before drifting across the carriageway.
Peter Blair QC, prosecuting, told the jury: "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 not dispersed because of the lack of wind mixed with the humid air and drifted in the direction of the motorway. It didn't take long from the build-up of smoke to the dramatic loss of visibility."
Mr Blair told the jury the tragedy could have been avoided if Mr Counsell had fulfilled his health and safety responsibilities.
But Adrian Darbishire QC, representing Mr Counsell, said smoke had been seen drifting away from the motorway - not towards it.
"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.
Speaking after Mr Counsell was cleared, Elaine Adams from Barry, South Wales, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Adams, said she was "very, very cross".
"I am speaking on behalf of all the families here and we are all absolutely devastated," Mrs Adams said.
"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 think a lot of money has been wasted and I think there are things that could have been done that haven't been done."
Mrs Adams said she still believed it was right to bring the prosecution against Mr Counsell.
John Williams, leader of Taunton Deane Borough Council, said the authority is working to see if current guidance regarding large firework displays is appropriate.
"Our primary concern is to minimise the risks of this type of unimaginable incident happening again," Mr Williams said.
"On behalf of the council, I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to the families of the bereaved and the families and friends of all those affected by these terrible events.
"I would also pay tribute to all those who showed such bravery at the scene, to all the emergency services and to staff at the hospitals where the injured were treated."
An inquest will take place at a later date.