Police liability overruled

2009-09-30 00:00

A YEAR after Pietermaritzburg High Court Judge Pete Koen found police were negligent in relation to medical care given to an alleged drunk driver, who caused the deaths of two children in an accident on the N3 in 2003, the Supreme Court of Appeal has overruled him.

The SCA this week upheld an appeal by the national minister of police, the charge office commander of Hammarsdale police station and Inspector Musawakhe Morris Mwandla against the trial court’s finding that the state was liable to compensate Pietermaritzburg widow Loraine Craig and her children for the death of Andre Craig in police custody.

Craig instituted a claim against the state for R1 361 800, but the initial trial dealt only with the question of liability.

Craig alleged she begged police to no avail to allow her late husband to seek medical help after he complained to her of chest pains, vomited blood and “curled up in pain” on the floor after the accident.

Andre Craig died in Grey’s Hospital — where he was taken 16 hours after his detention in connection with the accident — on July 20, 2003.

Evidence revealed Craig was under the influence of alcohol and was driving on the wrong side of the N3 when his Toyota Corolla collided head on with a BMW at about 9.30 pm on July 19, 2003.

Two children, aged seven and nine, burnt to death in the vehicle.

Craig’s blood alcohol level was found to be 0,25 grams per 100 ml of blood. The legal limit is 0,05 g.

In the SCA judgment, Judge M.S. Navsa (with four other jud­ges concurring) said the court was well aware of the plight of Craig’s wife and daughters. “They have lost a breadwinner and appear to be without means. If, of course, the police had behaved negligently and wrongfully, they should be held to account. On the other hand, good policemen, who behave properly and execute their duties conscientiously and often under trying circumstances, are entitled to have their reputations kept intact and should not be saddled with liabi­lity unjustifiably.”

The SCA found that there was no reason to disbelieve the police version of the events of that night.

According to the police, Craig was seen by the district surgeon, who identified no medical problem needing further medical attention.

He walked unaided and had no signs of significant injury.

At Hammarsdale police station, he did not complain he was unwell and did not show any obvious signs of distress.

His family only asked to be allowed to take him to hospital after he was denied bail and police in fact summoned paramedics to examine Craig, but he refused to be examined.

The SCA found that when Andre Craig himself complained, Inspector Mwandla was called and there was no indication that he delayed nor that he did not transport Craig to hospital expeditiously.

Thus, the SCA ruled it cannot be said the police were negligent.

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