WATCH: Family challenge verdict of 'accidental death' in father's inquest after Limerick crash

Fintan Walsh

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Fintan Walsh

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fintan.walsh@limerickleader.ie

THE SON of a pensioner has challenged a coroner over his verdict of “accidental death” in the inquest of a father who was killed in a tragic double-car collision in County Limerick. 

Francis O’Reilly, from Ballybrown, was speaking during the inquest into the death of his father, Patrick ‘Sonny’ O’Reilly, who died in the car crash in Ballybrown on February 24, 2015. 

Father-of-one Hans Schnottalla, 52, who had an address at Ballycarney, Clarina, was found not guilty by reason of insanity for dangerous driving causing death when the Skoda he was driving collided with Mr O’Reilly’s Ford Focus. 

The incident occurred after Mr O’Reilly, 73, of Ferrybridge, Clarina, was dropping his two grandchildren at the local Ballybrown National School, before 9am. 

Witness Teresa Shanahan said in her deposition that she saw Mr Schnottalla “drive straight through the junction” at Clarina Cross when the traffic lights were red. 

Michelle Cusack, from Dooradoyle, said she was on the Church Road when saw a Skoda hit a Ford Focus after she dropped her two children at the primary school. 

She said that an Ed Shanahan approached Mr O’Reilly’s car and said: “I think he is gone. Get an ambulance.”

She said that she saw Mr Schnottalla kick his car tyres and that he “seemed out of it” and “something was not right”. She said she saw a child in a rear passenger seat. 

Witness Maria Cahill said in her deposition that she saw Mr Schnottalla walk in the direction of Clarina village. 

The inquest heard evidence that he left the scene of the crash, leaving his son in the back seat of the Skoda. 

Local man Fred Cross said in his deposition that he saw a man “roar and shout and hitting the windscreen with his fists” and that “whatever language he was speaking, it certainly wasn’t English”. 

He said the child, who had blood coming from his nose, “started to cry” and that Mr Schnottalla had “disappeared”. 

Ballybrown man Edward Shanahan said that a “car overtook me at speed” and “nearly hit me”. He said he then saw the car “hit Paddy O’Reilly’s car head-on”. 

Mr Shanahan said he went to Mr O’Reilly’s car and “shouted his name and held his hand, but there was no response from him”. 

Mr Schnottalla’s wife, Annette Langenbacher, who was not present during the hearing, said she had got a job in Askeaton after moving to Ireland and had a rented house in Clarina. 

She said her husband had not worked since arriving in Ireland, and that he had previously said he suffered with psychosis. She said he stopped taking his medication “because he said it was making him tired”. 

She said that her husband “seemed to be thinking a lot” the previous Saturday. She said that he was not attending a doctor for his mental health. 

On the morning of the collision, in a phone call to her husband, he said he “was confused but was okay” to bring his son to school. 

At 9.50am, she received a phone call to say that her husband and their son were in hospital. 

Garda Ciaran Young said that he found Mr Schnottalla walking on the road while he was driving in the Patrickswell direction. 

After Gda Young was told by witnesses that Mr Schnottalla “veered across the road causing a head-on collision”, he arrested him for dangerous driving causing death. 

Mr Schnottalla was treated in the acute psychiatric unit at University Hospital Limerick after the incident, the inquest heard. 

Michael Reddy, a garda public service vehicle inspector, said both vehicles suffered  “extensive damage” in the “headlight-to-headlight strike”. 

He said at the time of collision, Mr Schnottalla was “leaning forward or was in a slumped position”. He said both vehicles were below the 80kph speed limit. 

He said Mr O’Reilly was “stopped or almost stopped” and that the Skoda was driving between 60kph and 70kph. 

He added: “60kph is a colossal speed at closing impact,” also describing it as “horrendous”. He said that 80kph is a “questionable speed” on that road.

He said Mr Schnottalla “allowed little time” to avoid the collision and said he was “oblivious to the fact that he was on a collision course”. 

One witness said that when Mr Schnottalla overtook him on the road “his car never went back in [the correct lane]” and that he was “making a bee-line straight for him [Mr O’Reilly]”. 

Mr O’Reilly’s son Francis asked if there was evidence of a mobile phone in the car, and if there was, “did it ring at that time”. 

He said he “could have been stopped from getting into that car” and that “alarm bells were ringing loud”. 

Francis told the inquest that Mr Schnottalla “passed my father as if he was a piece of dirt”. He said while he was asking about his son, but “not one word about how my father was”. 

Coroner John McNamara said the cause of death was cardiorespiratory failure, secondary to head and chest injuries following a road traffic collision. 

Delivering a verdict of “accidental death”, Mr McNamara said it was “quite clear that Paddy was minding his own business” and that he “tried his best to avoid the collision”. 

However, the family challenged the coroner on his verdict. 

“My father was 100% in the right. And when someone is 100% in the right, someone else has to be in the wrong.”

Mr McNamara explained that if someone was convicted in a criminal court, his “scope would be wider” and that if he recorded a verdict of unlawful killing “that would be very seriously outside the bounds of where I can go”. 

Speaking on behalf of his family, Francis said: “Would it not be better that we come to a conclusion of open verdict, because you are not 100%.”

“Are you making a submission?” the coroner asked Mr O’Reilly’s son. 

“It should be open because we do not have the full facts of what happened. We don’t know if he was picking up his phone or a bar of chocolate, or if he was having an episode. We will never know.

“If you are not 100% sure, how can you say it’s an accident?” he replied. 

He added that he was “the deepest sympathy” for Mr Schnottala “because he is a sick man. I am not angry with the man”. 

Mr McNamara said he did not want to cause further upset to the family. 

“If it would ease your suffering and upset, I would be prepared to record an open verdict,” he said. 

Mr McNamara concluded the inquest with an open verdict. 

In an interview with the media, Francis O’Reilly said that the “justice system failed us miserably”.