A driver and four directors of a sightseeing bus tour operator have appeared in court charged over a fatal double-decker bus incident in Malta.
The case called two years 10 months after the accident, on April 9, 2018, when the southbound sightseeing trip on the open-top bus, driven by 27-year-old Charles D’Amato, ended in tragedy.
As the vehicle hit a low lying tree branch along Valletta Road, Żurrieq, two of the tourists on the upper deck were killed, while 54 other passengers were injured, four of them seriously.
One of the alleged injured victims named in a charge is Simon Morrison, an Aberdeen football coach who was treated in hospital following the incident.
The magisterial inquiry that kicked off immediately after the incident was wrapped up last month and a copy was handed over to the police on January 10, the court was told yesterday at the first hearing of the compilation of evidence.
D’Amato, Degabriele brothers Kim, 40, Philip, 32, Noel, 24, and their sister Lee Ann Borg, 38, directors of City Sightseeing Malta Ltd, have been charged in relation to the tragedy.
According to the Times of Malta newspaper, a number of criminal charges against the driver and four directors appear to be time-barred.
A copy of the proces-verbal landed before Magistrate Joseph Mifsud just before the hearing.
Asked by the court to explain the reason for the delay in pressing charges, Superintendent Josric Mifsud explained that this was no clear-cut case and that prosecutors had sought to base their action upon a “learned decision”.
As soon as they received the conclusions of the magisterial inquiry, they had immediately taken legal action, filing charges in court on February 16.
Three days later, all five accused were served notice of summons.
Yet, that explanation was rebutted by Magistrate Mifsud by making reference to a police circular, dated May 2016, urging prosecutors to press charges “if there is enough evidence to warrant an arraignment,” even before the magisterial inquiry has been wrapped up, so as to avoid prescription.
All five accused pleaded not guilty to involuntary homicide and a number of other offences, while defence lawyers promptly pointed out that four of the charges were time-barred.
These concerned causing slight injuries to 13 passengers, damage to the bus, dangerous and reckless driving, as well as driving under the influence of drink or drugs.
Following the hearing, Simon Morrison, of Aberdeen, said he had not been aware that the case would be calling in court yesterday.
He said: “There’s nothing I can say at the moment apart from it’s disappointing it’s taken three years to get to this stage.
“We didn’t know about this at all and were advised this week that the report was still with the magistrate.
“Communication hasn’t been good at all.”
The aftermath of the crash was described by superintendent Johann Fenech who gave a first-hand account of the scene that met him when he reached the site of the accident.
“I had hardly ever seen anything like what was in front of me,” he said, describing the wrecked bus stationary close to the roadside wall with damage on its front left side.
Venturing to the upper deck, Fenech spotted two lifeless bodies, later identified as a Spanish woman and a Belgian man.
“The railing on the left had been pulled back like a piece of cotton wool,” the witness explained.
Fresh traces of red paint on the branch were also visible. But no brake marks were observed, the officer said.
The driver, visibly traumatised, was immediately breathalysed and the test was negative. He was then taken to hospital in a highly anxious state.
The remaining passengers, all foreigners, were treated for various injuries, 33 of them rushed to Mater Dei, four in a critical condition.
When testifying later in the inquiry, the majority of them did not describe the driving as “reckless,” and none had indicated any abrupt manoeuvre by the bus driver to avoid some oncoming traffic or obstruction.
As for the low lying bough, a court-appointed expert had concluded that the foliage had not been affected by the heavy storm that swept across the island just days before the crash.
He did, however, recommend its removal since the bough had been weakened upon impact and could risk future accidents.
The branch had been jutting out but would only have been struck by traffic passing close to the pavement, the witness said.
On that advice, the branch had been cut off after the fatality.
The case continues.