Fatal Velodrome incident successful conclusion | 7 years of litigation

Fatal Velodrome incident successful conclusion | 7 years of litigation

An account of grievous life changing injuries and ultimately death following a crash in a regional Velodrome.

Recent coverage of the claim

As part of our investigation, a specialist team were instructed to analyse multiple areas including grip testing, environmental testing for dirt and debris, CCTV analysis and accident reconstruction. You can read the full technical case study on the TRL website here.

In addition to the investigation case study and our own account, this crash, which changed the lives of our client and his family, was also the subject of a seminar addressed by the barrister who had represented one of the (losing) Defendants in which he observed “They threw the book at us”. The TRL article of the forensic examination of track and tyres is one chapter in that ‘book’.

The incident and injuries

Our client was one of a group which attended a Velodrome taster session. He was caught up in another rider’s crash in which he had played no part other than being in the wrong place for a split second. The lead rider was up the banking during a full lap change when his tyres lost grip causing the bike to slide down and into the path of the string passing beneath.

Illness or injury are inconvenient because life is disrupted and we are out of sorts. The ‘to do’ list gets longer. Plans go on hold; the consequences are in direct proportion to the severity of the affliction.

The worst which can be suffered is what some lawyers rather uncompassionately refer to as the ‘total wreck’ cases, which means the loss of mental or physical function, or both. The ultimate life changing injuries where the victim becomes wholly dependant on others for their survival. Where all privacy and dignity are lost.

An insight can be gained from Melanie Reid’s book ‘The Life I fell out of’ and her series in The Sunday Times called Spinal Column; while massively life changing for Ms Reid, her injuries and their consequences were less devastating than those sustained by our client in this incident, whose spinal cord injury was so complete that he could do nothing at all save communicate; although his mental faculties were intact and he could speak and breathe, that was sadly about the limit.

For everything else: all movement, nourishment and, as the medics put it, eliminations, he was dependant on others. This involved PEG (through a tube) feeding, manual evacuation of bowels, catheterization, therapy to maintain lung function and prevent pressure sores.

After 18 months of this existence, in which he passed through several eminent spinal units and ultimately after returning to his own (by this point adapted residence), our client developed pneumonia and sadly passed away.

From March 2012 to September 2013 our client was the overarching focus for his wife and adult children, initially visiting him at the three hospitals where he was treated and finally re-organizing their retirement bungalow into a de-facto hospital with rooms given over to 24/7 live in and waking carers and all the paraphernalia necessary; hoists, wash rooms, custom bed, and so on.

Against this background, it was the remark of the barrister that prompted us to write this story.  It seemed a rather peevish thing to say. “What did he expect to happen?”.

The claim

The TRL investigation clearly revealed that the coloured tyres fitted to another participant’s privately owned bike, which had been admitted for use in the index Velodromes for a taster session, (as opposed to the bikes hired from the Velodrome by our client and others, about which there was no complaint) offered significantly less adhesion than tyres manufactured with conventional treads. It was this bike that perpetrated the disaster.

The timeline of events in this case is highly significant.

The crash occurred in March 2012. Once the family had collected their thoughts, with our client as first priority, they sought legal advice from Cycle SOS Consultant Solicitor Paul Darlington the following year.

Prohibited tyres

One of the legal team’s first lines of inquiry led to the web pages of the National Velodrome in Manchester, the home of British Cycling from which all wisdom flows.  A prohibition on the use of dual compound and/or coloured tyres in a velodrome environment was found to be published on the website.

If that was the state of knowledge, what was the index Velodrome doing by allowing a bike with suspect tyres onto the track? Especially as its owner /rider had made a point of checking with the organizer of the taster session and with the Coach in charge that his bike was compliant. It was hardly the end of the world if it wasn’t; he would have simply gone to the stores and hired one.

Cut and dried, surely?

Apparently not. There did not appear to be any record or audit trail as to when the prohibition had been published on the National Velodrome’s web pages nor why. No-one connected with the National Velodrome could recall any history at all. The stance adopted was that the knowledge and publication post-dated the crash, so the index velodrome and its staff could not be criticized for allowing the bike onto the track with its coloured tyres. No-one, it was said, was in a position to know. Not the Coach, nor the Velodrome staff. Several of the staff signed Witness Statements (verified with Statements of Truth -the equivalent of giving evidence on oath) to that effect.

So if there was no actual or implied knowledge of the poor grip afforded by these particular tyres at the time, how could anyone be to blame? Which meant that a second allegation had to be pursued: track cleanliness.

Track cleanliness

Irrespective of the Velodrome’s inability to evidence the methodology of any track cleaning system in place at the time, this was also refuted by Insurers. It was significant, because the constructor of the facility was on record (Cycling Weekly interview, November 2010) as emphasising the need for track cleanliness, going so far as to describe appropriate cleaning methods in the Track Manual provided to the Velodrome’s management on completion.

Hence the second limb of TRL’s investigation involving the analysis of the dirt extracted from clothing (which had been preserved) worn by one of those involved, collected as he slid down the banking.

Approaching trial

The Family approached trial in a state of some uncertainty. The defendants, that is the Velodrome Management and the Coach (through British Cycling’s Insurers), were sheltering behind the absence of knowledge defence set out in statements from their witnesses of fact. Until……….

Internet research in another country revealed a website with postings from 2010 which quoted the wording found on the National Velodrome’s website in 2013 verbatim. There was even a hyperlink to the National Velodrome web site.

Further research located posts made by visitors to the National Velodrome in 2009/10 quoting remarks attributed to coaches concerning the shortcomings of coloured or dual compound tyres in that era, 2 years before the crash with which we are concerned.

Suddenly the absence of knowledge defence wasn’t looking so strong and a negotiated settlement soon followed.

What could the defendants have done differently?

As the claimant’s representatives, we were quoted as having ‘thrown the book’ at the Defence. If this was the case, it was only because there was no other option. Had someone in the governing body happened to find (or look for) the paper trail which led to the cautionary posts on the web site or actually remembered the history, then everything could have resolved sooner and less acrimoniously. The clients family would not have had to endure 7 years of bitterly contested litigation. The insurers of the losing parties would have had smaller costs bills to pay.

Furthermore, had our client lived, the damages would have run well into seven figures. A fatal (dependency) claim is invariably far smaller, so you could say the insurers had enjoyed a windfall (running into millions) due to the clients passing, although that did not appear to impact upon the decision to defend the dependency claim to the bitter end.

This is just one example of many, where Defendants unnecessarily prolonged the process, putting the family of the victim through more pain in order to minimise their losses; irrespective of the family’s own tragic loss.