There were emotional scenes in court today as a bus driver whose runaway bus crushed a mother-of-four was jailed for seven and a half months.
Standing in the dock with his head bowed throughout the 20-minute hearing at Craigavon Crown Court, James Johnston, 35, burst into tears at learning of his fate.
His wife, who was sat in the public gallery, had to be comforted by friends and relatives as she also wept, blowing kisses to her husband as he was led to the cells in handcuffs.
Imposing the 15-month sentence, half to be served in jail and half on licence, Judge Patrick Lynch QC said while Johnston “is clearly a man of good character” who had “suffered considerably” as a result of the accident which claimed the life of Charlotte Linda Stewart, “this accident is as a direct result of the defendant’s mishandling of the vehicle he was in charge of.”
Having recounted how Johnston had left his Busy Bus, “a vehicle weighing several tons, driven by a powerful motor,” in gear, the engine running and the “third foot” depressing the accelerator to keep the bus running, the Judge said it was his view that “the inherent danger in such an arrangement...seems obvious.”
“In my view these actions fell far below the standard of care expected from the defendant,” Judge Lynch told the court.
On the morning his trial was due to start last month Johnston, a father-of-one from Killowen Grange in Lisburn, pleaded guilty to Ms Stewart’s manslaughter on 29 December 2014.
The court heard that having parked his bus at Lisburn bus station, Johnston had left the engine running with the accelerator pedal depressed in order to “keep it warm” for other passengers.
Seconds after he got off however, it shot forward, up and over the kerb, pinning Ms Stewart between the bus and a wall and causing injuries which caused her “rapid” death.
In a prepared statement released following the sentencing hearing today, her family said “there are no winners today from this tragic incident.”
Describing her as a “much loved wife, mother and sister” whose life was “cruelly cut short that day,” the statement continued: “We will never get over Linda’s death however today’s court result brings us as a family some closure.
“We would ask everyone to centre your actions when not following their work training and procedures - in this case by not following procedures the bus driver cost Linda her life.”
Senior investigating officer Inspector Lynsey Barr also released a statement saying the thoughts of the PSNI “are with the family and friends of Charlotte.”
Highlighting that the tragic accident “could easily have been avoided,” Inspector Barr said while all road users have a responsibility for road safety, “it is entirely appropriate that there is even more of an onus on professional drivers.”
“The consequences of making the wrong decision, as this case clearly shows, can be simply catastrophic and fatal. It is only by chance that this incident did not result in a much greater loss of life, but that offers no consolation to the family and friends in this tragic case.”
Rehearsing the facts of the case, Judge Lynch said it was clear from CCTV footage that Ms Stewart and the bus arrived at Lisburn station at the same time and she could be seen “walking alongside” it as Johnston parked in a bay in front of the inspectors pod, known as “the bubble.”
Quoting from the statement of bus driver Mark Brady, the judge told the court he described watching as the bus “bounced into the air over the kerb striking the lady” at about 3-4 miles an hour.
“The bus continued on, striking the bubble, pinning the lady between the bus and the bubble,” quoted the judge.
Witnesses ran to the stricken Ms Stewart “but were unable to render any meaningful assistance” while Johnston himself, said the judge, could be seen on the CCTV going back to his bus and “bending down in the area of the driver’s seat.”
In the immediate aftermath Judge Lynch said it was clear Johnston was “extremely upset”, with a witness giving a statement that he was “inconsolable, he was just lying on the floor crying and yelling.”
Johnston told a police officer at the scene: “I’m sure I had the handbrake on” and he was breathalysed with a reading of zero.
Turning to the cause of the accident and Johnston’s culpability for causing it, Judge Lynch said the detailed report and analysis from the Forensic Science Service was to be “commended” as it outlined how there were three braking systems on a bus - the foot brake, the handbrake and a halt brake.
The halt brake is in operation when the doors are open and also disabled the accelerator pedal so giving a “double assurance” the bus won’t lurch forward when passengers are getting on or off, but when the doors are closed “the halt brake is switched off and the accelerator is again operational.”
As the doors were closed when the bus moved forward and the foot brake “by definition” is used by the driver, Judge Lynch said the only brake which was operational was the handbrake.
An additional feature of the bus was an automatic cut off if the bus is left idling for four minutes.
“There then comes into play a device referred to as the ‘third foot’,” said Judge Lynch, describing it as a metal bar driver’s use to depress the brake pedal to check their brake lights before their shift.
“However from the description it is clear that the device could also be used in the same manner to put continuous pressure on the accelerator pedal. This is what happened in this case and was the basic cause of the accident,” the judge told the court. In an effort to keep his bus warm for other passengers, Johnston had used the third foot to wedge the accelerator pedal down and it was this action, coupled with the fact Johnston had left the bus in gear, which caused the engine to rev “to such a degree that it overcame the resistance of the handbrake...and the bus surged forward and into the pedestrianised area.”
Interviewed about the tragic incident Johnston, who had been a bus driver for ten years, claimed he had had “problems with the brakes on the bus” so had put the third foot on the brake pedal along with the handbrake to stop the bus moving forward.
He also claimed he did not know of anything that would stop the engine from automatically cutting out, stating that he definitely did not use it in the accelerator pedal as “you’re definitely asking for trouble” if you did.
Turning back to the CCTV footage, Judge Lynch said it was clear from footage taken from a bus parked beside Johnston’s that when he got back in his following the fatal impact, “what he is doing at this stage is disengaging the third foot from the accelerator.”
Opening the facts of the case last week, prosecuting QC Charles MacCreanor told the court it was the Crown case that Johnston was trying to “cover up” his actions and today, Judge Lynch said much of the delay in bringing the case to a conclusion was “due to the defendant’s dishonesty and failure to face up to his responsibility for his own actions.”
He said it was clear from Ms Stewart’s family’s statements there is “anguish at their sudden, tragic and wholly unexpected loss,” coupled with a “palpable sense of grievance that this process has been dragging on for so long.”
Judge Lynch told Johnston an “honest admission” would have shortened the legal process but that the delay in the case, brought about as the defence contested the forensic findings, “has caused additional and unnecessary expense and, more importantly, additional stress to Ms Stewart’s family.”
Judge Lynch said he accepted Johnston himself had also “suffered considerably” as a result of the incident, now diagnosed with depression, suffering PTSD and receiving counselling.
The judge said as other cases of manslaughter varied so widely, he found case law in cases of dangerous and careless driving causing death as “providing useful guidance.”
“The obvious similarity is that this accident is as a direct result of the defendant’s mishandling of the vehicle he was in charge of,” said the judge, adding the legal test was not whether Johnston knew his actions were reckless but carried on regardless, but rather an objective test as to the standard of driving.
Repeating how Johnston left the unmanned, powerful and heavy bus idling with the accelerator forcibly pushed down, Judge Lynch said “the inherent danger in such an arrangement...seems obvious.”
As well as the jail sentence, he imposed a £25 offender levy but opted not to disqualify Johnston from driving.