LAWYERS representing 21 Alvechurch Middle School children and four adults seriously injured in a horrific coach crash in France while returning from a skiing trip have welcomed the release of the wreckage, which they say is a significant step forward in the battle for justice.
International serious injury experts at law firm Irwin Mitchell are representing the children, two teachers from the school, and two ski instructors who were injured when the coach came off the road near Chalons-en-Champagne, 90 miles east of Paris in northern France, on February 19, 2012.
Popular Alvechurch teacher Peter Rippington was tragically killed in the crash
The law firm has successfully secured settlements for a small number of them along with vital interim payments of compensation for some others, but the UK proceedings for compensation were put on hold following a Birmingham High Court decision after an application by the defendant tour operator, Interschool Travel Limited (trading as ‘Interski’). The company that organised the school trip said the civil claims for compensation should not be progressed through the English courts until the coach company’s insurers had access to the coach to carry out an inspection of it.
Following repeated requests by Irwin Mitchell, the French authorities have now agreed to release the coach wreckage for inspection.
Clive Garner, head of international personal injury and group actions at Irwin Mitchell who represents the passengers, said: “What should have been an unremarkable trip home after a skiing holiday abroad has ended up being a living nightmare for many of those involved and their families. It has been two-and-a-half years since the crash but many are still suffering from serious injuries and face a long battle to come to terms with their injuries and get their lives back on track.
“We have been able to progress a small number of cases, achieving vital settlements and interim payments for a handful of passengers to ensure they can fund expenses including ongoing treatment, specialist equipment and adaptations to housing which they need.? But the progression of many of our clients' claims, most of whom are children, have been delayed.
“The English coach driver has been charged with involuntary manslaughter by the authorities in France and a criminal trial there is expected early next year. Despite this, the civil proceedings in England have unfortunately been placed on hold as the coach company’s insurer considered that it could not conclude its investigations into the cause of the accident without access to the coach.
“We have been working with our colleagues in France to progress matters and the release of the wreckage by the French authorities is a significant step forward in our clients’ battles for justice. We can now push forward with our clients' cases and ensure they obtain the justice they deserve."
He added: "We are concerned that while the driver of the coach has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, we and the families we represent still do not know exactly what caused the accident. It is crucial that we determine why this coach left the road, first and foremost so that justice can be done, but also so that lessons are learnt to reduce the risk of a similar tragedy occurring in the future.
"We have repeatedly called for improved coach safety measures including driver training, monitoring and supervision to reduce the risk of coach crashes occurring. Driver fatigue and the adequacy of driver rest periods are also matters of concern which often feature as a contributory factor in coach crashes and more needs to be done to provide greater protection to bus and coach passengers. While the cause of this tragic accident is yet to be determined, there are strong suspicions that driver fatigue was a causative factor."
Steve Ratheram, 53, suffered devastating injuries in the coach crash including spinal fractures, a fractured sternum and broken ribs.
The ski instructor said: “This is a real step forward for all of us who were injured in the crash and have been left desperate for an explanation about what went wrong."