A drunk 17-year-old student may have tripped over her shoelaces causing her to fall into the path of a Tesco lorry as she left bonfire celebrations, an inquest heard.
Madeline Burgess had been drinking vodka and was two-and-a-half-times over the drink-drive limit when she was run over by the heavy goods vehicle on the A22 on November 11 last year in East Hoathly, East Sussex.
She had visited the annual event with friends but left alone on foot when she became upset about jokes, friends told the inquest in Eastbourne on Thursday.
Lorry driver Mark Gonall, from Ashford in Kent, said there was “nothing he could do” to avoid the crash as he tried to swerve when spotting an “object” in the road in front of him.
The experienced HGV driver and former soldier – who had been returning to a depot in Snodland from a delivery at the Hailsham branch of the store – said he had played the incident over and over in his mind.
He added: “Tragically I simply didn’t have time to react before the collision.
“I’m devastated for her family.”
Ms Burgess had been wearing a red puffa jacket made of non-reflective material and was lying along a “very dark” stretch of the major trunk road known as the East Hoathly bypass when she was hit, the inquest heard.
The teenager – who was born in Tooting in London and lived in High Hurstwood, a village near Uckfield – was then run over by a Vauxhall Insignia driving behind.
Reports found she had a “significant blood alcohol level” of 194mg per 100ml of blood in her system and would have been “severely intoxicated”.
Coroner Alan Craze said: “This is two-and-a-half times the legal limit for driving and in a 17-year-old who I don’t expect has had much experience in tolerance with alcohol I suspect it would have had a significant effect on her.”
But friend Ben Cranfield told the court she “did not seem drunk and was not falling over”.
Explaining the theory she may have tripped over in the road, friend Amber Weatherill said: “I had to tie her shoelaces twice that night. They were loose and long and kept coming undone.”
Concerns about the speed of the lorry and the driver’s visibility were raised by her family during the hearing.
The speed limit is normally 60mph but a temporary 30mph restriction was in place due to the busy event with signs placed “low down” at the side of the road which would have been harder for drivers to see, the inquest heard.
Giving evidence, Mr Gonall said he continued to drive at 40mph despite seeing the signs because they “looked homemade” and did not seem official.
He dipped his lights just before the crash because he mistakenly thought he could see oncoming traffic in the distance, he said.
Sussex Police forensic collision investigator Julian Taylor said the size of the vehicle meant speed would make little difference if it hit a pedestrian and it would have been hard for any driver to avoid the crash.
Marks on the lorry were consistent with the theory she had been lying down at the time of the crash but Mr Taylor said he “could not explain” why she was in the road.
Her injuries did not suggest she had been the victim of an earlier unwitnessed hit-and-run but this could not be completely ruled out, he added.
Instead he suggested she may have become disorientated in the dark after wandering off on her own, possibly believing she was on a road still closed to traffic.
The student’s family – who said they were “broken” by her death – also raised questions about measures put in place by the bonfire society organising the event and of the company which owns the lorry, Maritime Transport.
Drivers told the hearing that signage for this year’s event since the death had been “much more official” and visible.
The lorry was fitted with a camera but when police examined it they found no footage of the incident had been recorded as there was no memory card, the inquest heard.
Uckfield College described Ms Burgess as a “vibrant, very popular and happy” A-level student who had a “great sense of humour and a kind and generous nature”.
She was a “joy to teach” and the college was “devastated” by her death, a statement said. Mr Craze ruled she died as a result of a road traffic collision.