NORTH Yorkshire County Council has been found not guilty of breaching health and safety laws over the death of a teenager who drowned on a school caving trip.

A jury at Leeds Crown court returned their verdict yesterday at the end of a month-long trial.

Health & Safety Executive video explaining the cave system known as Manchester Hole in Nidderdale where Joe Lister died in 2005

Tadcaster Grammar School pupil Joe Lister, 14, died in the caves near council-run Bewerley Park Outdoor Centre in Nidderdale in 2005.

Despite the verdict, North Yorkshire County Council’s head of services for children and young people Cynthia Welbourn ruled out an immediate reopening of the caves. She said: “It is far too soon to make any decision at all. We will be doing nothing without reflecting carefully on all of the proceedings.”

No caving has taken place since Joe’s death.

North Yorkshire County Council had denied two charges of breaching health and safety regulations by failing to ensure the safety of Joe, his schoolmates and others.

Joe’s fellow pupil Carly Walton and a trainee instructor Jenny Wheelhouse won a High Court judge’s praise for “probably saving the life of another member of the party” on November 14, 2005.

The not guilty verdicts came after a trial in which North Yorkshire County Council said it had done all it reasonably could and that the circumstances that led to Joe’s death could not have been foreseen.

Health & Safety Executive film explaining how the Joe Lister tragedy may have occurred.

Mr Justice Wilkie said outdoor activities had real education benefits but were inherently dangerous and supported both the decision of the Health and Safety Executive to prosecute the council and the jury’s verdicts.

He said: “I trust, however, that this will not be regarded as a reason for any complacency or self congratulation by those involved in organising and delivering these activities.

“For the one thing, this case has taught is that, however great the expertise and however ‘easy’ the cave, they can be unpredictable anddangerous. “I trust that this trial will have provided a spur to them to maximize their understanding of the systems within which they work and to seek to ensure that the activities are delivered in as safe a way as possible.”

While praising the way staff at the centre and council carried out their responsibilities, he said: “Nonetheless it cannot be avoided that a young boy, entrusted by his parents to the care of the centre, died in an horrific incident which all that dedication and endeavour was unable to prevent.”

He said staff at the centre had engaged in “serious soul searching” over the death.

“I believe that for some, this has been a somewhat humbling experience. Their understandable professional pride has been put into perspective by their failure to comprehend natural events which even with all their expertise, they have struggled to understand.”

He ordered that central Government meet the council’s court costs.

Case ‘was compelling’

Members of Joe Lister’s family were in court to hear the verdicts, as they had been throughout the trial.

They won Mr Justice Wilkie’s praise for their courage and the way they had coped with hearing evidence that was at times traumatic.

Speaking with composure but struggling to control his feelings, Joe’s father, Martin Lister said outside Leeds Crown Court: “We are very disappointed with the verdict reached by the jury in this case. “We feel the HSE presented a compelling case.”

Talking about the trip taken by Joe and his schoolmates beyond an area known as the “crawl” in Manchester Hole, Mr Lister said: “Obviously, if they had not gone into the cave or, more importantly, past the crawl, Joe would still be here with us today.”

He added: “It may be that the detailed examination in this court of the actions of North Yorkshire County Council will result in measures being taken to ensure that other young people are not exposed to the terrible and traumatic experiences described to the jury by those who were underground on that fateful day. We fervently hope so.”

Events ‘unprecedented’

THE head of children and young people’s services at North Yorkshire County Council offered Joe Lister’s family its “profound sympathy”.

Cynthia Welbourn said the authority was pleased the verdict had confirmed the procedures and practices followed in its outdoor education centres reflected all current legislation and guidance.

She said the council’s arrangements had ensured that activities had been led by staff of integrity and substantial experience, who were extremely well qualified.

“Evidence presented during the trial by a significant number of witnesses with extensive knowledge of Manchester Hole shared the view that the events on 14 November were unprecedented and could not therefore have been predicted.

“What this case underlines once again is that for children to gain the undoubted benefits of these activities in the outdoors, they must be undertaken with expertise and care. The county council will ensure that its centres continue to operate to the highest standards.”

Unedited mobile phone video taken by Christopher Copeland on Nov 14, 2005

HSE ‘not wanting to eliminate risk’

THE Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has defended its decision to prosecute North Yorkshire County Council.

Speaking after the verdicts, Pam Waldron, head of operations for the executive, said it had done so after a thorough investigation.

“Mr Justice Wilkie said it was entirely proper that this case was brought,” she said.

“One issue on which both parties are agreed is the benefit that outdoor activities provide to young people. We have not sought to stop these activities in any way.

“HSE is not trying to eliminate all risk – that would be absurd. Neither are we are looking for absolute safety. But we will continue to expect significant risks to be identified and managed.”