A 50-year-old man was found not guilty of causing death by dangerous driving following a fatal collision on the A1 in north Northumberland.
Gordon Soutar, of Cairneyhill, Dunfermline, who works as an operations director for Virgin Money in Gosforth, was standing trial at Newcastle Crown Court, where he denied causing death by dangerous driving and the alternative of causing death by careless driving.
And today, the jury returned not-guilty verdicts to both counts after not much more than an hour of deliberations.
The charges related to an incident on the A1 Felton bypass on the single-carriageway section on November 12, 2012. At around 7.30am, Soutar’s white BMW was described as drifting into the northbound lane near to the bridge over the River Coquet, clipping a Citroen car before colliding almost head-on with a VW Caddy van. The driver, Nigel Sowerby, 37, from Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, was killed.
Prior to summing up the case this morning, Judge Paul Sloan said that such cases as this ‘are bound to give rise to strong feelings’ and that the jurors may feel sympathy for the family of the deceased or for the defendant in finding himself in this predicament. “You must embark on a measured and dispassionate review of the evidence put before you,” he added.
Soutar said that he doesn’t remember anything of the journey – his usual Monday morning commute to work in Gosforth – south of Berwick.
Last Tuesday, the court heard from Dr Tom Mackay, a sleep specialist and director of the sleep centre at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, who first saw Soutar in January 2013 before diagnosing him with obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome in April.
It involves the person involuntarily holding their breath for a number of seconds at a time while asleep before the brain realises and sparks the breathing process again. Importantly, it prevents the sufferer from being able to reach the crucial stages of deep sleep.
“It’s really akin to chronic sleep deprivation because they go through it night after night, week after week, month after month, even year after year, without realising it,” said Dr Mackay.
The condition can lead to what are known as micro-sleeps, when the person undergoes short periods of inattention – from fragments of a second to about ten seconds – and it is this that Soutar claims was happening during his drive.
Another expert, Dr Chris Idzikowski, told the jury that he didn’t believe that micro-sleeps were a likely cause, saying that a series of micro-sleeps lasting the 40 minutes or so from Berwick to the collision site were likely to cause someone to fall asleep properly and that an accident would have occurred sooner.
He added that the precision of the overtaking manoeuvre just prior to the collision, in which witnesses reported Soutar overtaking four or five cars as he came onto the single-track section, and the lack of time between this and the subsequent ‘drift’ into the northbound lane ‘negates the possibility’ of micro-sleeps.
To be convicted of either of the charges, the jury needed to be sure that Soutar was driving at the time of the collision. In the legal definition, driving is ‘in a substantial sense controlling the movement and direction of the vehicle’.
Giving evidence last Thursday, Soutar said that he was not allowed to drive for a period before he started treatment for his sleep apnoea and was signed off by his doctor. Nevertheless, he now drives very rarely and only with his wife as a passenger. He now commutes from his home in Scotland to Gosforth by train.
Jurors also heard statements and evidence from a number of Soutar’s colleagues and friends, all of whom described him as a hard-working, conscientious man who is dedicated to his family. Soutar has never been arrested or interviewed under caution by police and has held a clean driving licence for more than 30 years.