Farmer could face private prosecution

A FARMER who was accused of causing a fatal accident by leaving mud on a country road could now face a private prosecution after he had a charge of manslaughter dropped.

A FARMER who was accused of causing a fatal accident by leaving mud on a country road could now face a private prosecution after he had a charge of manslaughter dropped.

Farmer David Winter, 70, could face the action from former medical secretary Lynne Barker who was seriously hurt in the crash.

Mr Winter was harvesting sugar beet when the mud was allegedly dropped on the B1117 road by one of his agricultural vehicles at Walpole, near Halesworth.

Retired midwife and artist Jennifer Townsley, 59, lost control of her Midas kit sports car when she hit the mud and crashed head-on into a Land Rover Freelander.

The mother-of-three suffered serious head injuries in the accident and died two weeks later in the James Paget Hospital, Gorleston, Norfolk.

Mrs Townsley's husband Gerald was a GP in Southwold at the time of the crash on November 22, 2000.

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Her passenger Mrs Barker was left fighting for life with serious internal injuries and spent two months in hospital.

Mr Winter, of Red House Farm, Halesworth, was arrested after a police investigation into the amount of mud on the road and charged with the manslaughter of Mrs Townsley.

The case could have had implications for farmers all over Britain as it was the first time a farmer had faced such a serious charge for leaving mud on a road.

He was due to stand trial at Norwich Crown Court this month, but he was cleared after the prosecution offered no evidence at a hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Wednesday.

The Crown Prosecution Service revealed that it felt unable to pursue the case because it could not prove that Mr Winter was guilty of "gross negligence".

But mother-of-two Mrs Barker, who is still receiving treatment for her injuries, said: "I am very disappointed that this case did not go to trial.

"I feel justice has not been done. A jury should have been given the chance to hear the evidence and make up their own minds.

"I will be taking legal advice and I will certainly now be considering the possibility of bringing out a private prosecution against Mr Winter."

Mrs Barker, a friend of Mrs Townsley for 25 years, was driving with her to buy an oak chest when the crash happened.

She said: "I can remember we were driving along normally when we suddenly came across this appalling sea of mud in a dip in the road.

"I think the mud was between entrances to fields on either side of the road - but you could not really tell where the fields ended and the road began.

"I had never seen anything like it before and Jennifer did not stand a chance of stopping or avoiding it. I do not remember seeing a warning sign and there was no time to do anything.

"As far as I can remember she lost control as soon as she hit the mud. The next thing I recall was being cut out of the wreckage and being taken to hospital. It all happened so quickly.

"It was not just like the few bits of mud that you see falling off tractors.

This section of road was completely caked in it.

"The police told me later that they had to get a JCB digger to clear it all off the road."

Mrs Barker, of Southwold, was planning to return to work at the time of the crash, but is now unable to do so because of her injuries which led to her spending several weeks in intensive care and having eight operations.

Mrs Townsley's husband who took retirement after the tragedy has now moved from Southwold and was unavailable to comment today.

Members of her family were not in court to hear the case against Mr Winter being formally dropped.

Mr Justice Aitkens recorded a not guilty verdict against Mr Winter after prosecutor Stephen Leslie QC stated "it would not be correct" for the Crown to continue with the case.

Mr Winter who was at the five minute hearing with his wife Pauline said later that his thoughts were with the Townsley family and he wished to pass on his sympathy.

He added in a statement: "To be formally acquitted of the charge of manslaughter brings to an end the nightmare of the past 15 months.

"I cannot begin to describe how much this prosecution has affected my family, but we hope that we can put these events behind us and resume our normal life. Could I also thank the many people who have taken the time or trouble to write to us or contact us with offers of help or messages of support.

"We derived great comfort and hope from knowing that so many people believed I was not guilty of this terrible charge."

Suffolk police spokesman Steve Henry said: "We fully investigated the circumstances of the accident and the decision to charge Mr Winter was taken by the Crown Prosecution Service.

"If this case leads to anyone in the farming community being more careful about mud and the general public being more aware then it is a good thing for all concerned."

Chris Yule, chief crown prosecutor for Suffolk, said he was no longer satisfied that there was a realistic prospect of a successful prosecution against Mr Winter.

He added: "I no longer believe there to be a realistic prospect of a jury concluding that Mr Winter's acts and/or omissions could be characterised as grossly negligent, and therefore a crime."

The National Farmers Union said farming operations could have been severely hampered if the case had been allowed to continue because it could have set a precedent.

Brian Finnerty, spokesman for the NFU eastern region, said: "Farmers will be relieved that Mr Winter's nightmare is finally over.

"The NFU advises members to do everything they can to minimise the amount of mud on the road, to clean up any mud as soon as possible and to erect warning signs about any potential hazard to other road users.

"They also have a responsibility to do so under the Highways Act 1980. However, during farming operations - especially those occurring during spells of prolonged wet weather - it can be very difficult to remove mud immediately."