In the determination of a recent Fatal Accident Inquiry Sheriff Cubie sitting in Glasgow reminds us of the purpose of this type of hearing:

“The purpose of a fatal accident inquiry is to enlighten and inform those persons who have an interest in the circumstances of the death. It is to ensure that members of the deceased person's family are in possession, so far as possible, of the full facts surrounding the death. The broader function of such an inquiry can be additionally to ensure that the circumstances are fully examined and disclosed in the public domain.

It is the function of the FAI, where appropriate, to establish whether there were any reasonable precautions which might have prevented the death and to examine whether any defects in the system working were identified which contributed to the death. Thus the objective of such a public enquiry must be to ensure where lessons can be learned and steps taken to avoid any future recurrence, that these are identified and brought to the attention of those who are in a position to implement them. In this connection, it is a legitimate aim of an FAI brought under section 1(b) where there may be serious public concern, that wherever possible, that concern is assuaged and public confidence restored.”

That particular case related to a failure on the part of hospital staff to take full account of the findings of a CT scan but unfortunately in that case the evidence did not support any recommendations being made.

Another recent example, where the recommendations were more readily made, related to the tragic death of an agricultural worker who lost his life as a result of the tractor that he was driving losing grip on the sloped surface of a field and overturning.

Much thought was given to whether or not a task specific risk assessment may have been necessary but this was ruled out by the Sheriff on the basis of evidence about the experience and competence of the deceased to assess the circumstances of the task.

Rather the Sheriff was persuaded by evidence that the most likely cause of death when a tractor overturns is the driver being thrown clear of the vehicle and crushed.  That being the case the most obvious means of avoiding that would be for agricultural workers to wear the seatbelt fitted into the cab of most modern tractors at all times.  That precaution would not prevent all injury from a vehicle overturning but it is to be hoped that it would prevent a fatality.

It is important that the findings of Fatal Accident Inquiries are given due publicity so that lessons are learned across the industries most likely to be carrying out similar tasks.  The flip side of such publicity is that where an inquiry follows an accident at your workplace it is important to obtain legal advice about whether or not you need to be represented at an early stage.