RECORD OF INVESTIGATION INTO DEATH (WITHOUT PUBLIC INQUEST)
Coroners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Christopher P. Webster, Coroner, have investigated the death of
ASHLEY PHILISITY MAREE BELLETTE-COUTTS
WITHOUT HOLDING AN INQUEST
I have decided not to hold a public inquest hearing into this death because my investigations have sufficiently disclosed the identity of Miss Bellette-Coutts, the time, place, cause of death, relevant circumstances concerning how her death occurred and the particulars needed to register her death under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1999. I do not consider that the holding of a public inquest hearing would elicit any information further to that disclosed by the investigations conducted by me.
a) Ashley Bellette-Coutts (‘Ashley’) was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on 2 February 1993. She was a student at Guilford Young College, Hobart, and had been residing with her parents and grandmother at the time of her death.
b) Ashley died on 7 September 2010, while being transported by ambulance to the Royal Hobart Hospital from Nubeena, in Tasmania. She was aged 17 years.
c) Ashley died as a consequence of chest and abdominal injuries following a single motor vehicle collision.
Ashley was a Year Eleven student at Guilford Young College. On Tuesday 7 September 2010, Ashley travelled to a property on Roaring Beach Road, Nubeena, with friends, intending to camp there and return home on Thursday 9 September 2010. All persons were college students and during the afternoon on 7 September a number of the group consumed alcohol in the form of beer, cask wine and premixed cans which they had brought with them. Music for the group was provided from one of the vehicles present with the engine being started periodically to keep the battery charged.
Circumstances Surrounding the Death:-
Shortly before 4.55pm, Master Thomas Fenlon (‘Thomas’) was sitting in his vehicle, a Nissan Pulsar Hatch, when he started the engine to let it run. Ashley was seated in the front passenger seat and they had been talking to each other when they decided to drive to the beach to check the surf. As Thomas drove from the property all the vehicle windows were down and neither him nor Ashley were wearing their seat belt.
According to Thomas’ evidence he drove about one kilometre along Roaring Beach Road before turning the vehicle around to return to the camp site as they had decided they did not wish to climb the sand dunes to check the surf.
Just before 5:00pm, when returning to the camp site and travelling on a straight section of the gravel road, the left side wheels of the vehicle moved towards the loose gravel verge on the road edge. The vehicle was travelling at less than 70 kilometres per hour in the 100 kilometre per hour speed zone when the vehicle wheels entered onto the loose gravel verge. Thomas was looking at Ashley while speaking to her when this occurred. On becoming aware of the vehicle movement he attempted to correct the position of the vehicle on the roadway and in doing so applied a significant right hand turn to the steering wheel. This action caused the vehicle to sideslip on the gravel surface and veer onto the incorrect side of the road where the passenger side impacted the earthen bank on the side of the road. The passenger side vehicle wheels furrowed into the bank and caused it to become airborne and overturn. As a result of the vehicle impact with the bank Ashley was ejected through the open passenger side window and came to rest between the vehicle and the road edge. The vehicle landed on its roof on the bank.
Ashley was provided with first aid by a passerby prior to the arrival of Ambulance Tasmania personnel. Initially she was conscious and able to inform the paramedic she had neck pain and medical care was provided to her. It was also noted that she had severe chest injuries. She was transported by ambulance to the Nubeena football ground in preparation for helicopter medi-vac to Hobart, however her condition deteriorated en route and she died in the ambulance.
A post-mortem examination was conducted by Forensic Pathologist, Dr Chris Lawrence. He determined that Ashley died as a consequence of chest and abdominal injuries following her ejection from a vehicle involved in a single vehicle collision. He further notes in his report, “Autopsy reveals a transection of the junction between the vena cava and the right atrium which has caused massive bleeding. There is also laceration and contusion of the lungs. The inferior vena cava injury would be rapidly fatal and would be unsurvivable without access to emergency surgery. Toxicology reveals an elevated blood alcohol level (0.139g/100ml)”.
On 2 November 2011, at the Hobart Magistrates Court, Thomas appeared and was sentenced in relation to offences arising from the incident. In his sentencing comments Magistrate Dixon commented that the driving itself did not show significant culpability, stating “it was only for a short period; it was not prolonged; it was a short period that led to loss of control and then the accident; and speed was not to blame for lack of control”, suggesting that the accident was more a result of driver inexperience.
Findings, Comments and Recommendations:
I find that there has been a thorough and comprehensive investigation by police into the circumstances leading to and surrounding the motor vehicle accident that resulted in Ashley’s death.
I accept the determination of Dr Lawrence that Ashley died as a consequence of chest and abdominal injuries she suffered when ejected from the vehicle at impact and find that she may not have suffered such serious injuries had she been wearing the vehicle seatbelt.
I agree with the comments of Magistrate Dixon that the manner of Thomas’ driving in itself did not cause the accident, but more his inattention to his driving and inexperience in responding to the unexpected movement of the vehicle at the time.
I conclude by conveying my sincere condolences Ashley’s family.
DATED 18th May 2012 at Hobart in the State of Tasmania.
Christopher P Webster