HAMPSHIRE County Council has been ordered to pay £1.5m in fines and court costs after a six-year-old girl sustained traumatic brain injuries falling off a broken bollard at Lymington in what a judge described as an “accident waiting to happen”.
The authority was criticised at Bournemouth Crown Court where a judge highlighted a series of failings by highways chiefs.
It did not act swiftly despite being told almost a fortnight before the incident on 28th December 2015 that the 69kg bollard was defective.
Judge Robert Pawson laid some of the blame on the council overall, ruling its policies at the time were “not sufficiently clear, adhered to or implemented”.
He also said senior staff made “mistakes”, including highways chief Richard Bastow.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted the council over the failings, and slammed the authority for its conduct.
“A child has been left with life-changing injuries as a result of what was an easily preventable incident,” the HSE said in a statement.
“Council inspections failed to identify this risk over a long period of time and then, when alerted to the damage to the bollard, failed to take urgent action required to prevent injury.”
As reported in the A&T, the youngster, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was rushed to hospital to undergo brain surgery after being knocked unconscious having fallen while clambering on an iron bollard at Quay Hill.
She has lost her sense of smell, her risk of epilepsy has increased and her learning and development has been hampered. She suffers with mental fatigue, loses concentration easier than before, and her linguistic capabilities are lower.
The court heard it was not yet known whether these problems will get worse as she enters adolescence – a key stage of learning and development – and whether she will be able to earn a living, form relationships or cope by herself without help as she gets older.
At the sentencing hearing on Wednesday, victim statements read to the court described the pain and guilt her parents feel at the injuries she suffered.
The family were in the New Forest for one night as part of their Christmas break and had been on Quay Hill searching for a place to eat.
“In that one moment everything changed,” her father said. “All our lives and everything we do is now different because of that one moment, and forever will be.
“I can remember that night, the night of the accident. It feels as clear as I’m here now – it feels like a dream, or a nightmare from which you will never awake.”
In a heartbreaking statement, the girl’s mother recalled how she was granted a cuddle with her daughter on a hospital bed moments before the youngster had to have a lifesaving neurological procedure because of a brain aneurysm.
She described the agony of not knowing whether her daughter would survive the operation and how she read her a book and sang to her.
Both parents said the family had “suffered greatly”, while their lifestyles had drastically changed. They had been forced to quit jobs, give up on studying and lost touch with long-term friends.
Sentencing Hampshire County Council, Judge Pawson said it was clear Mr Bastow had been notified, at least by 15th December 2015, there was a problem with the bollard.
That should have been seen to “as soon as possible” and recorded on the council’s system, he said.
Mr Bastow had left a telephone message with engineer Colin Hibberd asking him to deal with – but he was on holiday, which management would have known, the judge said.
He did not get the message until 20th December and visited the quay the following day to inspect the bollard.
‘An exceptional and unfortunate incident’
There was “no doubt” Mr Hibberd was “committed” and reliable – some of his colleagues had described him as “first among equals”. But the inspection he performed on this occasion was “insufficient” the judge said, as it did not deem the bollard a serious and immediate risk.
It subsequently transpired that at the time of the inspection Mr Hibberd did not have “adequate training” to assess the risks of bollards, the judge noted.
He added the county council’s policies advising the inspector on what to look for were “confusing and misleading”.
Despite the bollard representing an “accident waiting to happen”, it was wrongly decided not to cordon it off – which could have cost as little as £100.
He said another inspector did a scheduled inspection of the same bollard weeks before, on 3rd December 2016, but did not even register that it had hinges.
“Individual mistakes were made,” Judge Pawson said. “Hampshire County Council did have systems and policies in place, but they were not sufficiently clear, adhered to or implemented.”
Defence counsel Christine Agnew stressed that HCC extended its sympathies to the girl and her family. She also pointed out local authorities who commit offences and face a fine could be given a substantial decrease if it would affect its ability to deliver services.
She said HCC is the third largest authority in the country, had gained plaudits in the past year for its delivery of highway services, and it was 20 years since its last conviction relating to health and safety, at a care home.
Judge Pawson concluded: “Hampshire County Council must be punished for its breach of duty under health and safety law.
“It’s a public body and any residents of Hampshire would expect it to be financially punished in a properly punitive manner. However, the general public would also attest that in these time of unusual austerity danger must be guarded against.”
He fined the county council £1.4m and ordered it pay the HSE’s full costs of just over £133,000.
It was a “ghastly” incident, he said, and the girl suffered “severe and traumatic brain injuries”.
After the sentence a spokeswoman for HCC said: “We deeply regret the injuries to the child and have done all we can to support her and the family since the accident, and will continue to do so.
“While we fully accept the verdict and the county council’s liabilities, we believe that this was an exceptional and unfortunate incident.
“We are satisfied that our officers followed the county council’s policies and procedures in force at the time.
“However, the court found that these procedures fell short of requirements, arising from the change in government policy – from a national framework to an approach based on risk assessment – which is more locally determined.
She continued: “This case may prove to be an important test case for the interpretation of this change more widely.
“Since the incident, our policies have been independently reviewed and updated, and we have taken further steps to learn lessons, including a revision of procedures, and additional investment in staffing and training.”