A YOUNG motorist whose four friends were killed in a tragic road crash has been found not guilty of dangerous driving, causing their deaths.
Dayna Kearney (23) has also been acquitted of driving a dangerously defective vehicle at the time of the accident in Athy in 2015.
Ms Kearney wiped away tears as the jury delivered its unanimous verdicts, after just 27 minutes of deliberations. Some of the victims’ loved ones, who had been in court for the three-day trial also wept as the verdicts were read out.
Judge Eoin Garavan paid tribute to the victims and said Ms Kearney would have to live with the consequences of the accident throughout her life.
Minutes later, Ms Kearney hugged family members and walked free from Naas courthouse.
Outside, her solicitor Frank Taaffe said her reaction was one of “relief tinged with great sadness” at the loss of her friends.
Ms Kearney, a student from Crossneen, Carlow who was herself seriously injured in the crash had denied both charges in a trial at Kildare Circuit Court.
Her passengers, Gemma Nolan (19), Chermaine Carroll (20) and Niamh Doyle (19), from Carlow, and Aisling Middleton (19) from Athy were all killed “almost instantly” in the collision on the N78 at Burtown, near Athy, on January 6, 2015.
The five were returning from ice-skating in Kilkenny when the VW Polo Ms veered across the road and crashed passenger side-on into an oncoming VW Transporter van.
It had been the prosecution’s case that although her car was in sound mechanical condition, two tyres were not fully inflated and this along with the heavy load in the car caused it to swerve out of control.
There was evidence a tyre had gone flat on the Polo shortly before the crash and the defence maintained Ms Kearney could not have known about this, or corrected the car once it went out of control.
The defence also said all the evidence was that she had taken reasonable care of her car.
The jury had retired at 2.39pm to begin deliberations and by 3.00pm, Judge Garavan was told there was a “development” in the case.
The seven women and four men began to file back into the courtroom at 3.06pm. The court registrar asked the foreman if the jury had reached a verdict on the first count, of dangerous driving.
“We have,” he said, and replied “yes” when asked the same question about the second count. The registrar then read out the not guilty verdicts recorded on the issue paper.
Ms Kearney, sitting at the side of the court, wiped tears away with a tissue, while cries were also heard from the court’s public gallery.
Judge Garavan said it had been an “emotionally difficult trial”. He thanked the jury and excused them from further duty for five years.
Ms Kearney had been found not guilty after a short time but “that isn’t to say this wasn’t a most appalling and sad tragedy,” he said.
He paid tribute to the deceased and their families and friends. He said for four young people in the prime of their lives to lose their lives on what was a good road was “tragedy upon tragedy” and their lives could never be replaced.
Ms Kearney would “live with the consequences of that accident throughout her life,” he said.
There was a “lesson for all of us” that even on a good road, something “quite small” like tyre inflation could cause “such devastation.”
It was a “salutary lesson for all of us,” he said.
“I can only hope this particular chapter is over,” he said, adding that it might be “some ease and comfort to those who have lost loved ones.”
During a day and a half of evidence, the jury heard the accident that happened at 9.45pm on a straight stretch of almost new road, with no excess speed by either vehicle.
Another driver, Tracey Norton said she was travelling behind the van, at about 50 to 55mph, when she saw Ms Kearney’s car swerve and straighten back up. It then “shot across the road” in front of the van before crashing.
The two Polish men in the van jumped out before it burst into flames and Ms Norton went to the Polo where Ms Kearney was screaming. She saw a girl in the passenger seat but got no pulse.
Bus Eireann driver Mark Fitzgerald said he was stopped by two men with broken English, “literally hysterical” and saying “help the girls, help the girls.”
Mr Fitzgerald took two trainee doctors off the bus asked if they could move the driver because she was “the only one in the car that I believed was alive.” They could not move her.
When the emergency services arrived, Ms Kearney was the only one showing signs of life.
Garda Sergeant Donal O’Sullivan said her injuries were so severe she was not able to give a statement until four months later.
She told gardai she and her friends went ice skating in Kilkenny, and then to McDonald’s but she had no recollection of the accident.
She said when she bought the Polo on Done Deal in 2014, the ad said it had valid NCT until April 2015 and was road worthy. After the accident, she found out the NCT cert had run out eight months earlier. Gardai examined the disc and said it had appeared to be valid.
Ms Kearney was not accompanied by a fully licenced driver on the day of the accident and did not have L plates displayed.
The van was travelling at about 70kph, the passenger Mariusz Wawrzos said. He saw the car sliding from left to right two to three times before it hit the van.
Garda PSV inspector Tony O’Halloran examined the car the next day and the front left tyre was under-inflated, while the rear right tyre had no pressure, and the other two had burst in the accident.
He found a slow leak which took around two and a half hours to go down, unloaded.
The tyre in poor overall condition with signs of distress, wear and deterioration as a result of under-inflation, overloading, poor maintenance and incorrect storage, he said.
Between the flat rear right tyre and the soft front left, his opinion was the car lost stability, lost directional control and “yawned” or slid across the road.
He believed the rear right tyre had probably gone flat during the final journey and the car was driven a very short distance on it.
The indications were that everyone in the car was wearing seatbelts.
Engineer John Hayes, for the defence, said he noticed the cats’ eyes were particularly high on the road and the risk of tyre damage from them was significantly greater.
“I felt there had to be some injury to the tyre that had occurred within a short period prior to the event,” he said.
Mr Hayes said it could not be ruled out that the deflation of the soft front left tyre could have been caused by the collision.
“Even someone who had done an advanced driving course would have been unlikely to correct” the car once control was lost, he said.
“Here we have an inexperienced driver on a provisional licence driving a car on a full load…and when the car started to veer, she wasn’t able to control it,” prosecutor Daniel Boland BL told the jury.
Roderick O’Hanlon SC, defending, said what happened was no more than an accident.
The evidence was a tyre had gone flat on the Polo’s final journey from Kilkenny and Mr O’Hanlon argued Ms Kearney could not have known about the puncture because it was not present before the accident. All the evidence was that she had taken reasonable care of her car, he said.
Outside court, Mr Taaffe said Ms Kearney was sorry for what happened and she felt the loss of “her great friends.” It had been a tremendous ordeal for her, he said.
“She is feeling relieved but still shattered by the events of three and a half years ago. She has expressed sorrow to the families because they were all her friends that died in that tragic accident,” he said.