Department of Transport refute claims of obstructing inquest into death of Clare Coast Guard volunteer

Bernard Lucas, John O'Mahony, and marine solicitor Michael Kingston at Kilmallock Courthouse. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

A SENIOR counsel representing the Department of Transport at a preliminary inquest hearing into the death of County Clare Coast Guard volunteer Caitríona Lucas refuted suggestions by a maritime lawyer for the deceased’s family that it had attempted to obstruct the inquest.

Ms Lucas died after a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) attached to the Kilkee Coast Guard unit, which she was crewing on, capsized during a search for a missing man on September 12, 2016.

The 41-year-old mother-of-two, librarian, and experienced member of Doolin Coast Guard was the first Irish Coast Guard volunteer to die on a tasking.

Simon Mills, a senior counsel representing the Department of Transport, which is responsible for the Irish Coast Guard, told the hearing at Limerick Coroner’s Court on Monday (June 13) that his client would assist the inquest in any way it could.

Michael Kingston, maritime lawyer instructed by Connolly O’Neill solicitors on behalf of the Lucas family, said the whereabouts of the safety helmet, life jacket, and dry-suit worn by Ms Lucas at the time she died was unknown.

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He said the Irish Coast Guard had audio and visual recordings of the rescue attempt on the day but that the Lucas family and its representatives had not yet received this evidence.

“It is seven years since this accident happened and we don’t have any of the evidence – it is staggering,” said Mr Kingston.

His request for members of the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) as well as an MCIB investigator, which compiled a report into Ms Lucas’s death, to appear as witnesses at the forthcoming inquest was declined by Coroner John McNamara, however the MCIB report is to be admitted as evidence.

Mr Kingston reasserted the family’s belief that critical evidence had not yet been provided to the family’s representatives seven years on from Ms Lucas’s death.

“We need the evidence to get to the bottom of what happened to Caitríona Lucas. There is so much evidence missing that we are at an impasse,” added Mr Kingston.

He also requested drone footage of the rescue attempt on the day, as well as video footage from an Irish Coast Rescue Helicopter.

Mr Mills said his client refuted a suggestion by Mr Kingston that a letter sent from the Department of Transport to the coroner to say that it wanted an inquest carried out in a certain way and that it would decide what evidence would be produced.

“It does not say that, and nor would it ever say that,” said Mr Mills.

He said his client refuted Mr Kingston’s suggestion “that there is some degree of obstruction by my client”.

Mr Mills said his client was “committed to providing as much assistance” as was required by the coroner.

“We are here to cooperate … In so far as we can cooperate, we will cooperate,” he said.

Mr Mills added that the Lucas family’s solicitor’s firm had written to the department seeking certain evidence, but he said this request could only come from the coroner.

He said the department had enquired as to the whereabouts of Ms Lucas’ safety helmet and clothing but, “I am told we have not been able to locate the helmet and we have not been able to locate the life jacket”.

Mr Mills said his client had indicated in a letter it sent to the coroner that the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) may have had information that may have led to the whereabouts of Ms Lucas’ PPE (personal protective equipment). HSA inspector Helen McCarthy told an earlier preliminary hearing into the inquest last April that a member of the Irish Coast Guard should “be questioned about that”.

Mr Mills said the Department “has told me it (Ms Lucas’ PPE) is not available to them, they are not in a position to produce it for this inquest”.

“I can’t say anything about the preservation of evidence because I don’t know where they (helmet, clothing) are. I don’t know how they are not in somebody’s possession,” Mr Mills added.

The coroner said: “The evidence should have been preserved. That’s the bottom line. So if it’s not there, there is not a lot I can do about it.”

He said he would make enquiries with the HSA about the whereabouts of the helmet and clothing, however he added, “I don’t suspect that they will have it either”.

At this point, addressing the court, Caitríona Lucas’ husband, Bernard Lucas, who was accompanied by his daughter Emma, asked the coroner: “How is that good enough?”

Bernard and Emma Lucas, husband and daughter of the late Caitríona Lucas. Photo: Brendan Gleeson.

Mr McNamara stated, that if the (PPE) evidence was not available, “what do you want me to do?”, to which Mr Lucas retorted: “Find it. There has to be a record of it somewhere. So go and find it.”

At this juncture, the coroner told Mr Kingston: “I don’t want to upset anyone, but I’m asking for people to control themselves in the context of this inquest”.

“This is an inquest and court proceedings, and there are certain rules that have to be followed. I understand the sensitivities and everything else involved,” added the Coroner.

“I know emotions run high, but there are certain things that have to be observed in the context of an inquest and a courtroom.”

Mr Kingston replied that the Lucas family had suffered “seven years of agony”.

He said Ms Lucas was a “beloved wife, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, and they (her family) want to understand what happened to her”.

Mr Kingston said he appreciated “there may be no deliberate obstruction” by parties, but his client had not received evidence they believed was key to finding out what happened in the events around the death of the volunteer search and rescue member.

Mr Kingston told the coroner: “I have information that indicates that the life jackets and helmets were under the control of the Irish Coast Guard. I accept that, if they are saying that isn’t the case, then you are caught between a rock and hard place.”

He continued: “Where is all of that evidence? And why didn’t they volunteer it? And why were Mr Mills’ clients not in this room to assist us to put my clients out of their agony.”

Mr Mills told the coroner that he believed Mr Kingston’s line of questioning was “very unfair” on his client.

Mr Mills submitted that it was not in the scope of the inquest to get to the bottom of where the PPE equipment had gone and why it has gone missing.

The coroner said he would write to the office of the Chief State Solicitor, requesting that all relevant evidence, including audio and visual recordings from the day, as well as any available drone footage, be provided to the inquest.

The coroner adjourned the matter for a full hearing on November 27, when a jury of at least six members will be sworn in to hear the case. The inquest is expected to last for up to one week.