Jury Returns Open Verdict Into Tram Death

Authorities’ Actions Branded ‘Hopeless’ And ‘A Shambles’ By Coroner

22.02.2011

The family of a 30-year-old West Midlands woman, who tragically died after being in a collision with a Midland Metro tram, has spoken out angrily following an inquest into her death, claiming she was badly let down by both the police and the tram company. 

During the 12 day jury inquest into the death of Cheryl Flanagan on 12th December 2003, a jury heard that confusion amongst Midlands Metro staff and British Transport Police (BTP) resulted in them failing to call an ambulance for over an hour.

They were also told that not a single BTP CID officer in the entire West Midlands was on duty that night as they had all been given the day off to attend a Christmas party.

The family’s lawyer, Hilary Wetherell from Irwin Mitchell solicitors, welcomed the conclusion of the inquest, which has taken more than seven years to be heard and said the family now await the outcome of a further Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation.

Returning an open verdict, the jury heard how on that fateful night Cheryl Flanagan, who had worked at Bilston Street Police Station as a data handler, had just minutes earlier been involved in a furious argument with her boyfriend, Ian Bracey.

However, during the inquest Bracey, who at the time was a serving police officer with West Midlands Police, claimed he had walked away from the row, leaving Cheryl alone on the platform.  

The jury heard that Bracey had gone onto the tram track to retrieve his scarf after Ms Flanagan had thrown it onto the line during their row on a bridge leading to the tram stop. Not wanting to return to a further argument with her, he told how he continued to walk along the tram line and then scrambled up a steep and muddy embankment - even though he admitted that he was wearing a new cream coloured coat - before continuing his journey home.  In seeking to explain his route, he claimed that he didn’t have enough money for a taxi.

However, when questioned by a juror, he was forced to admit that within minutes of her death, he had enough money to pay for some cigarettes.

Cheryl was subsequently found on the tram line having sustained fatal injuries after a tram ran over her on its approach to The Crescent stop at Bilston, near Wolverhampton. 

Midland Metro driver, Sherman Porter, told the jury that he did not apply his brakes to the tram as he approached the stop, shortly before 11pm, despite seeing an object on the line ahead of him.  He believed that the tram would clear the object but then heard thudding as the tram passed over Ms Flanagan’s body. 

The inquest heard that Midland Metro bosses had inadequate systems in place for dealing with a serious incident on the line.  The jury was told how at the time the onus was on the driver to tell his control room which emergency service he needed, something he failed to do as  a result of being traumatised by the incident,

The jury heard conflicting evidence from Travel Midland Metro staff and BTP officers over whose responsibility it was to call an ambulance and a number of these witnesses admitted making their own assumptions that Ms Flanagan was already dead. 

To the Coroner’s astonishment, the jury also learnt that there was not a single BTP CID officer on duty that night in the West Midlands who was able to attend the incident because they had all been given the day off to attend an office Christmas Party. When eventually one CID officer started to make his way from Bristol, almost 100 miles away, he was ordered to turn back by a more senior officer.

In the confusion that followed, the parents of Cheryl Flanagan, who had by this time arrived at the scene, were advised that an ambulance had been called when in fact this was not the case.

HM Coroner for Worcestershire, Geraint Williams, branded Midland Metro’s procedures as “hopeless” and British Transport Police’s management of the fatal incident as “a shambles.”

The jury heard how Bracey was initially arrested on suspicion of murder but the CPS eventually decided not to prosecute on the basis of the evidence obtained. This was despite Bracey being unable to provide any explanation as to how traces of DNA, from blood very likely to be Cheryl’s, had ended up on the inside cuff of his jacket. 

The jury heard how Cheryl’s boots and handbag were found some way from her body and yet were moved by a police officer before the scene had been examined.

In his summing up to the jury, HM Coroner suggested that the evidence of the most senior officer present on the night, Inspector Jeanne Arnold (who has since been promoted to Chief Inspector) may be interpreted as “terrifying and appalling”. 

Mr Davis, barrister acting for British Transport Police took the opportunity during the inquest to offer his apologies to the family for the inadequate investigation into Cheryl Flanagan’s death.

Hilary Wetherell, a solicitor with law firm, Irwin Mitchell, who is representing Ms Flanagan’s family, said: “The past seven years have been extremely difficult for the family. It is hard for any parents to lose a daughter so young and in such tragic circumstances and the fact that they have had to wait so long to gain public acknowledgement of what they already suspected, has placed a great strain on them.

“The investigation has confirmed what they have long believed but, until now, never had publicly acknowledged: that on the night in question both Travel Midland Metro staff and British Transport Police fell short in the way they responded to this tragic incident.

“There have already been a number of independent investigations and an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation into the conduct of British Transport Police. The IPCC has upheld a number of complaints raised by the family to date and the final conclusions from the IPCC are awaited now that the inquest has concluded.  A further separate IPCC complaint is being pursued by the family against PC Stefan Osak, a BTP Officer on duty on the night of the incident.”

During the inquest, Midland Metro bosses stated that, as a direct result of Cheryl’s death, they have since changed procedures. Emergency services are now automatically called to a serious incident of this kind by Midland Metro themselves, thus hopefully ensuring that any delay in the summoning and arrival of vital emergency services is kept to an absolute minimum.  Their operating procedures at the time of Cheryl’s death did not require Midland Metro to call an ambulance to the scene of a major medical emergency involving one of their vehicles. 

Ms Wetherell continued: “One of the hardest aspects of the events surrounding Cheryl’s death, which her parents and sisters have struggled to come to terms with, is that vital forensic evidence was not preserved at the scene. Inspector Arnold’s complete inexperience in the management of forensic scenes was evident for all to hear. The Coroner reminded the jury that they were being asked to reach a verdict with vital forensic evidence having been compromised or simply lost in light of the “very bad” handling of the scene and initial investigation.    

“It is hoped that BTP have also improved the way in which they deal with serious incidents, following their conduct that evening and their failure to provide a prompt and professional response. However, the Flanagan family feel that as no officers on duty that night have ever been formally reprimanded or retrained, this sends the wrong message to the public that lessons may not in fact have been learnt.

“Further, the family has always maintained and believed that there were two individuals involved in the tragic events surrounding their daughter’s death; the tram driver and Ian Bracey, yet, to this day, neither has been held accountable.

“The Flanagan family recognise that whilst this inquest has not been able to provide them with a definitive answer as to all of their questions surrounding the circumstances of Cheryl’s death, they believe that the IPCC investigation has been rigorous and wish to place on record their thanks to Peter Moore of the IPCC, the Coroner and their barrister, Stephen Campbell of No 5 Chambers, for leaving no stone unturned in their quest for answers.”