Last Sunday the body of Dr Tim Boyd of the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS) was found in the Highlands. It appears he was killed by a lightning strike. A week earlier another employee of SAMS, Christopher Bell was killed in an avalanche on Glencoe when descending a snowy gully which also took the lives of three other people and seriously injured a fifth.
When tragedies occur, we want to find ways to prevent similar accidents from happening again. It appears that nothing could have predicted Dr Boyd's tragic accident but what of the Glencoe tragedy?
If the group in Glencoe had been led by a professional mountain guide then, in addition to checking data on weather and avalanche risk he might be expected to carry out a so-called dynamic risk assessment to assess hazards and determine whether there were suitable control measures to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. There was clearly at least some risk of avalanche, given the characteristics of the steep exit gully used and the presence of snow and ice. The question is whether in all the circumstances the risk was small enough to justify the descent? A difficult question and one where differing views have emerged in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Tragedies like this have frequently been the subject of public inquiries and under the Fatal Accident and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976 a powerful tool exists for the Sheriff in the local Sheriff court where the accident occurred - here Fort William - to inquire into the accident and make recommendations of any steps which should be taken to improve practices or systems in the hope of avoiding any future accidents.
The Act says that where he considers it to be in the public interest the Lord Advocate - usually acting through the local Procurator Fiscal - can order:-
"that an inquiry under this Act should be held into the circumstances of the death on the ground that it was sudden, suspicious or unexplained, or has occurred in circumstances such as to give rise to serious public concern."
Because of the popularity of hillwalking and mountaineering in Scotland the Crown may well find the public interest here merits an FAI into the accident in Glencoe. At any hearing the court can compel witnesses to attend, where required and arrange for expert evidence to be presented, for example about weather conditions, snow conditions, avalanche warnings and other meteorological data. Crucially, the Courts judgement - the Determination - must include details of the cause of death, any reasonable precautions which could have been taken which may have prevented the death and any other facts which are relevant.
The climbers here were adults acting independently. Along with the hundreds of other weekend enthusiasts escaping to the hills, they did not employ a guide. Part of the attraction is the risk attached to the activity and escape from the usual humdrum routines of daily life. Many outdoor activities involving young persons however, are regulated. The Adventure Activities Licencing Authority (AALA) inspects the suitability and safety management of adventure activity providers such as outdoor centres for young persons and, if satisfied, issues them with a licence. Activities inspected by the AALA include hill walking and climbing and combined rock and water activities.
Persons injured or the bereaved families of those killed in tragedies like Glencoe may have a remedy in civil damages against professional guiding companies or outdoor centres which are involved, if negligent but here no remedy appears to exist.