Court battles over sinking of unlicensed ferry
on 04/02/2013 00:00:00
But water had also got in and, with its combined weight, the vessel became unstable.
A report into the tragedy said desperate attempts were made to move the van and shift its weight. The vessel started taking on more water.
The ferry had got to the channel at Dinish Island when it turned back to try and make it home. Another boat scrambled to its aid. But almost immediately, the ferry capsized.
Four people drowned: Patrick Maguire from Castletownsend; Patrick O'Neill from Castletownbere; Vincent Moriarty from Castletownbere and Mr Moriarty's daughter Tracey, aged 11.
People in Castletownbere watched on helplessly. One man, using only snorkling equipment, dived under the vessel in a bid to find those trapped underneath.
When a crane brought the ferry back to shore it was searched. Mr Moriarty and his daughter were found dead in the cabin shelter.
The 7.5 metre ferry was operated by Bere Island Ferries Ltd.
The usual vessel that serviced the route to Bere Island, Misneach, was out of service to facilitate work ahead of an inspection. The Blue Ferry that was in the water that morning was not licensed.
Five court cases were initiated as a result of the tragedy. Relatives of the four people who drowned took circuit court actions, as did one man who was injured.
The court said liability was split between the ferry operator and the Department of Transport.
The State appealed this to the High Court and won, in a judgement that said the ferry was not licensed, so the department was not to blame.
The wife of Mr Moriarty, who also lost her daughter in the tragedy, appealed the circuit court award to the High Court.
This was settled and the damages she received rose to £140,000 as a combined settlement.
The ferry operator agreed a separate settlement.
Costs arising from the Circuit Court case relating to Tracey Moriarty came to €132,116 and were paid by the department in 2004. A claim for €45,981 costs arising from Vincent Moriarty's case was only lodged in recent years.
Away from the direct question of liability and loss of life, another court battle began to take shape.
Cork County Council had its road marking vehicles on the ferry that morning and they had inadvertently unbalanced it.
The council was named as a party to the damages action and it said the department promised to cover its costs in the action.
This did not happen. The council had raised costs of €53,970 in the Circuit Court and €27,835 in the High Court.
But while the dispute over who should pick up the bill rumbled on, interest charges started to mount. The department stood firm and by 2010 the council told the department almost €40,000 had been added to the circuit court bill because of interest charges and €18,089 was heaped onto the High Court costs.
In April 2008, unhappy with the department's efforts to meet its demands, the council went to the High Court to look for its money. In an internal departmental memo, released under the Freedom of Information Act, officials said it had tried to resolve the matter.
"Previous offers to settle this issue, on the basis of available records and the recollections of officers involved at the time, were rejected by solicitors and they [the council] initiated new High Court proceedings for recovery of their costs," it said.
In 2009 further efforts were made to negotiate a settlement between the two State bodies. Eventually the secretary general of the department intervened and said there was a case to explore the idea of mediation. This had come on the strength of an instruction from the Chief State Solicitor's Office to avoid costly litigation between State bodies wherever possible.
However, by that stage €66,750 had been spent by the council on its High Court bid to recover costs. It is not known what the department spent on defending the action and it said this was matter for the Chief State Solicitor's Office.
After spending a decade bickering about the bill, a mediation meeting was arranged for Mar 10, 2010.
What could not be agreed in the previous years was worked out in one day of negotiation.
"Given that the department had previously offered to pay both the Circuit and High Court costs, which had been rejected, and following some calculation on the interest costs, the department's counsel offered the original circuit and High Court costs, plus interest solely on the circuit court costs to date. For their part they agreed to ignore the High Court interest costs (€18,089.28) and sought €66,750 to cover their costs on the present proceedings," a memo said.
The final agreement included a reduction to the final demand for €66,750 but the overall agreement still came to €167,500 - more than double the council's original legal bill.
In a note to the Public Accounts Committee the Department said the ultimate conclusion arrived at by the Department's own barristers was that the case "simply had to be settled, given the involvement of two State bodies".
But this was too late for the legal bills amassed in the years previous.
According to the department's own notes the payment was audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General in May 2011 and "no discrepancies were found".