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19 Aug 2022

Companies plead guilty to roles in deaths of Limerick bridge workers

A CHILD will never experience what it is to be "daddy's girl" as her father drowned after a cage he was working in "fell into the Shannon".

A moving victim impact statement was read out on behalf of Therese Wigsten, partner of TJ O'Herlihy, aged 36, of Castleisland, County Kerry, at Limerick Circuit Court this Wednesday. 

The brother of Bryan Whelan, aged 29, of O'Brien's Bridge, County Clare, who also died in the tragic accident while carrying out remedial works on Thomond Bridge in Limerick city, spoke movingly of his family’s loss.

John Paul Whelan said a couple of weeks before the tragic accident at 3.40pm on August 29, 2015, Bryan had spoken of taking his nephews to their first hurling match when they were old enough.

"Now that they are playing hurling and football he would have been cheering on proudly from the sidelines," said John Paul, who added that Bryan was the boys’ guardian angel.

A third worker who was in the cage – Paul Murphy, from Askeaton -  managed to free himself and he was rescued. He was in the body of the courtroom.

Following an investigation by the Health and Safety Authority, two companies - Nationwide Crane Hire Limited and Palfinger Ireland Limited - were prosecuted on indictment before the circuit court.

Nationwide Crane Hire Limited pleaded guilty to a regulatory breach regarding providing a safe place to work while Palfinger Ireland Limited pleaded guilty to failing to give information pertaining to the manual when they supplied the crane to Nationwide Crane Hire.

Shane Costelloe SC, prosecuting on behalf of the State, outlined to the court that a cherry picker type crane on a flatbed truck was used to lower a steel cage containing the men over the bridge.

Mr Costelloe said a safety switch, which is a giant spring, did not work.

"The cable stretched and stretched and then snapped. The cage fell into the Shannon," said Mr Costelloe.

Dermot O'Brien, an inspector with the Health and Safety Authority for 25 years, said: "The overload protection system failed to operate as designed."

The court heard the manual supplied by Palfinger Ireland Limited to National Crane Hire Limited did not have information on how to test the overload protection system.

CCTV footage, captured on a traffic camera, was shown to the court. The circuit court then moved (from the courtroom) out to the yard of the Mulgrave Street complex where a visual demonstration of how the crane operates was given to Judge Tom O’Donnell and attendees of the court sitting.

When the court resumed hearing evidence inside, Mr O’Brien said the mechanism had "seized" on the day.

"If it operated properly it would have shut the system down," said Mr O’Brien. The court heard the crane driver performed his duties diligently and professionally.

Mr Costelloe informed Judge O’Donnell that he could hand down a fine of up to €3m in relation to Nationwide Crane Hire Limited. There is no cap on the fine that can be imposed on Palfinger Ireland Limited.

Mark Nicholas SC, who represented Nationwide Crane Hire Limited, said it was the "most dreadful case of enormous tragedy". He extended his sympathies and apology on behalf of Nationwide Crane Hire Limited.

"There were enormous consequences of the undoubted regulatory breach. It was an utterly devastating event," said Mr Nicholas, who spoke of "the most extraordinarily overlapping of situations". In particular, he said the three men’s safety harnesses attached to the cage while wearing life jackets "created a devastating outcome".

Turning to the overload protection system, Mr Nicholas said the company was "not aware of the test".

"I have no doubt they would have done the test if they were aware of it," said Mr Nicholas.

Michael Collins SC, who represented Palfinger Ireland Limited, expressed the condolences of the directors of the company.

He said the "omission" in the manual was discovered 12 years after Palfinger Ireland Limited had sold the crane in 2003 to Nationwide Crane Hire Limited in the "aftermath of this most tragic accident".

Mr Collins said a chip downloaded showed that the overload protection system had worked on 156 occasions.

Neither of the defendant companies have any previous convictions.

Judge O’Donnell expressed his condolences to the families on this "desperate, desperate tragedy".

"I am extremely conscious that the families have been waiting seven years for this case to come to court and give them a voice," said Judge O’Donnell.

He said the companies have "held their hands up" for breaching statutory provision. Judge O’Donnell said it was inappropriate to rush to judgement and wanted to consider all the evidence including the "deeply poignant" victim impact statements.

The case was adjourned until October.

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