A Co Antrim grandmother who killed her grandson in an almost head-on two-car collision during a “moment of inadvertence’’ was handed a 150-hour community service order on Friday.
Belfast Crown Court heard that Margaret Saunders was “deeply remorseful” and wished “she had died in the crash’’ which claimed the life of her seven-year-old grandson Jackson Turner in a horror Boxing Day collision two years ago.
The 73-year-old retired health service worker had been due to go on trial last year on a charge of causing the death of her grandson by dangerous driving.
But following the completion of a defence expert’s report, the prosecution accept her guilty plea to the lesser charge of causing death by careless driving.
Prosecution counsel Ciaran Murphy QC told the court that Mrs Saunders was driving her Nissan Micra car from the Mossley area along the Old Carrick Road in Newtownabbey towards Carrickfergus on the evening of December 26, 2015 between 6pm and 6.30pm when she made contact with two vehicles.
Mr Murphy said during the first incident, the wing mirror of her Micra clipped the wing mirror of a Citroen Picasso coming in the opposite direction from Carrick.
Just a few seconds later during the second collision, said Mr Murphy, “her Nissan Micra crossed 80 centimetres into the other lane colliding almost head on with the a Nissan Almera car coming in the opposite direction”.
The senior prosecutor said that as a result of the collision, Mrs Saunders’ car had “spun round 180 degrees back in the direction to which it came from”.
He told the court that the Old Carrick Road was a ‘B’ road governed by the national speed limit of 60mph and experts’ reports were unable to say exactly what speed the vehicles had been travelling at the time of the collision. He added that they did not believe excessive speed was the cause.
The court heard that Jackson Turner, who was sitting strapped into a booster seat directly behind his grandmother in the rear, suffered “catastrophic and fatal injuries” as a result of the collision.
His sister, a front seat passenger who was also wearing a seat belt, fortunately escaped uninjured during the collision.
Mrs Saunders, said Mr Murphy, later told police she had no recollection of the collision and only recalled waking up in hospital where she spent five weeks undergoing treatment for multiple fractures including a broken pelvis, as well as a bleed on the brain.
The prosecutor told the court that the defendant’s Micra car was examined and found to have “no mechanical defects”. He added that Mrs Saunders had a clear record and there were no aggravating factors in the case.
Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland was told that a number of victim impact statements had been handed into court - from Alison and Alan Saunders, the estranged parents of Jackson, and the female driver of the Almera.
Defence counsel Patrick Lyttle Qc described the case as “hugely tragic” for all concerned.
“Mrs Saunders is a grandmother of 73 who has lived an unblemished life, has been driving for 40 years and has never been before the courts.
“All she lived for was her family: her husband, her three daughters and her son Alan. She worked all her life to support her family.
“Mrs Saunders tells me that she left on a Thursday at the age of 14 and started work the following Monday. She later went on to work in the health service, spending over 30 serving as a community care worker before her retirement six years ago.
“She has led an exemplary and unblemished life until this incident. She is truly remorseful for what happened.”
The defence counsel said witnesses described the road on the evening of the collision as “pitch black”, the weather was dry but the roads surface was wet
“It appears now, and is accepted by the prosecution, that the first incident was caused by a ‘moment of inadvertence’ which caused the defendant to clip the wing mirror of the Citroen Picasso car.
“It is that impact and that surprise which caused her to lose further control and move across the road, by about two degrees says our expert, and caused the collision with the Almera vehicle with devastating consequences.
“She wishes she had died and Jackson had lived and is fully aware of the impact this tragic death has had on the rest of the family, her daughter in law, the mother of Jackson, and her son.
“This case has been a sobering one for us all and shows how a moment of inadvertence can result in such tragic loss,” added Mr Lyttle.
He said she should be given full credit for her guilty plea to causing death by careless driving at the first opportunity and urged the Belfast Recorder to deal with defendant by way of a community service order, saying she was willing to work in a charity shop or do clerical work.
Judge McFarland said Mrs Saunders appeared before the court with an “exemplary work record serving the public through the health service for over 30 years”.
He said she had a clear criminal record who had “no driving blemishes, criminal or otherwise”.
The Belfast Recorder said incidents of careless driving or near misses through careless driving happen on a daily basis on the roads in Northern Ireland, saying minor accidents sometimes result in serious injuries while serious crashes can result in only minor injuries.
He said that following the first minor collision with the Citroen Picasso, Mrs Saunders “had been unable to control” her Micra car before it “veered” into the oncoming path of the Nissan Almera.
“It is clear that this was a significant collision and the aftermath was significant”.
Judge McFarland said that as a result, her grandson Jackson Turner suffered “catastrophic injuries...his spine was severed in two place, he would have been unconscious and death would have followed very rapidly”.
“What can one say in such cases?,” said the Belfast Recorder: “I have read the very moving statements that have been prepared by Jackson Turner’s parents and it is evident that this has been a difficult experience for them.”
He said it was clear that Christmas time would be a constant reminder to his parents at the loss of the their son and for his sister at the loss of a brother.
Stating that he had taken the defendant’s work ethic, her clear record, the injuries she sustained in the collision and the remorse she expressed “which I accept is genuine”, the Belfast Recorder ordered said he was imposing a community service order as opposed to a probation order.
He told Mrs Saunders she would have to “carry out 150 hours of unpaid work for the benefit of the community”.
The judge said that he no reason to depart from the mandatory disqualification period of 12 months but added that the defendant would have to resit her driving test.