Girl drowned after buoyancy aid became snagged on sinking boat, inquest told


A teenage girl taken on a speedboat ride by her friend's father drowned when it capsized and her "ill-fitting" buoyancy aid became snagged, an inquest jury has found.

Emily Gardner, 14, from Gloucester, was pulled unconscious from the water by lifeboat crews after being trapped underneath the boat for 25 minutes.

She had been taken on the 16ft vessel by Paul Pritchard - the father of her 15-year-old best friend Holly - in Brixham, south Devon, on May 2 last year.

The boat left Brixham Harbour at about 11.30am but overturned shortly after entering open water after being hit by a wave measuring up to 6ft.

South Devon and Torbay's Coroner's Court heard all four occupants of the boat - Mr Pritchard, Holly, Emily and friend Gemma Gadsden - were thrown into the water.

Emily was wearing an extra-small wetsuit but had been allocated an extra-large buoyancy aid, which was not a life jacket, to fit a chest of 45-50in. Her chest measured 32-34in. 

The inquest heard one of the straps of the buoyancy aid became caught on the cleat of the speedboat, holding Emily underneath it.

Lifeboat crews managed to free Emily 25 minutes later after winching the speedboat up, but she was pronounced dead at hospital.

Ian Arrow, senior coroner for Plymouth, South Devon and Torbay, reached a narrative conclusion.

"Quite clearly Emily was going to have a lovely weekend away with her friends and her friend's family," he said.

"We know boats do capsize but what has struck me of particular note is that this boat flipped right over.

"On flipping right over it threw two people clear and trapped two people underneath. The boat sank stern-first.

"A terrible situation arose whereby the strap on the buoyancy aid that Emily was wearing was caught on a cleat and the boat took her down under the surface of the water."

The inquest jury found: "The boat was hit from the right-hand side by a wave whilst planing.

"[Emily was wearing] an ill-fitting buoyancy aid with a missing strap.

"The webbing strap on the back of the buoyancy aid became entangled on the cleat at the rear right-hand side of the boat."

The jury found Emily died because she was trapped under the vessel.

Following the two-day hearing at The Palace Hotel in Torquay, Emily's mother Deborah and father Clive read a statement to the jury.

"Emily was the perfect daughter," Mr Gardner said.

"She touched so many people's lives in her short life. Emily will always live on in our hearts.

"My family and I miss Emily so, so much and time will never heal. Our lives are ruined.

"We are devastated, our hearts are truly broken and will never mend. The sparkle in my eyes has now gone."

Mrs Gardner wept and shouted "We love you Emily" as her husband finished reading the statement.

Emily had travelled to Brixham on May 1 2015 with Mr Pritchard, Holly - her best friend since the age of two - and their friend Gemma Gadsden.

The group had breakfast in a cafe overlooking the harbour the following morning and decided to visit a cove a few miles away in the speedboat.

They were joined by jet-skiers Philip Marr - who co-purchased the 26-year-old boat with Mr Pritchard from eBay in August 2014 - and his son Luke Holland-Bowyer.

During the inquest, Mr Pritchard described the Fletcher 155 Bravo speedboat as "more than adequate" to cope with the conditions.

"The three girls and I were thrown into the water," he said.

"Gemma and Emily were trapped under the boat but Holly managed to pull Gemma free.

"I could see that Emily was stuck at the back of the boat but I couldn't see what she was caught on. At one point I had hold of Emily's life jacket but I was unable to pull her free."

Mr Pritchard said he had known Emily from the age of two, when she became best friends with Holly at play school, and would often take her on trips.

"Both my family and I were devastated and continue to be devastated about Emily's tragic death," he added.

A 15-minute video of the incident, described as "extremely stressful" by the coroner, was released following the inquest.

The footage shows the boat setting off from the harbour towards the breakwater with the jet-skis positioned in front and behind it.

It then depicts RNLI lifeboats setting off and arriving at the stricken speedboat, with its upturned hull bobbing in the choppy water.

The end of the clip shows Emily being carried from the RNLI all-weather lifeboat to a waiting ambulance.

Dr Atanu Mukherjee gave Emily's cause of death, at Torbay District Hospital, as drowning.

Devon and Cornwall Police previously concluded that no criminal offences were committed in the incident.

In a statement released after the inquest, Mr Marr and Mr Pritchard said: "We deeply regret the tragic incident on May 2 2015 and wish to offer our condolences to Emily's family and friends."

Speaking after the inquest, Emily's parents said: "We would go everywhere together but on this bank holiday weekend one year ago we allowed our beautiful daughter to be independent from us, experience something new, something that she was excited about.

"But if we had known that power boat drivers do not have to have a licence or training we would never have let her go and she would still be alive today.

"We need people to become aware of the absence of legislation to ensure the safety of passengers on leisure craft and will campaign for laws to be brought in to close this legal loophole.

"We can't bring Emily back but we don't want another family to have to endure what we have been through. As a result we will be calling for the introduction of Emily's Law."

Richard Langton, from Slater and Gordon who represent the Gardner family, said: "An ill-fitting buoyancy aid contributed to this tragedy.

"Evidence given at the inquest was that there is no legal requirement for passengers, even children, to wear a properly fitting life jacket or any life jacket at all.

"It is incomprehensible that the UK is one of few countries in Europe that does not require licences for people to drive speedboats.

"This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency to increase safety standards across the industry.

"In addition, education for potential boat buyers that old vessels may not comply with safety regulations is seriously lacking.

"At present anyone can go out and buy, in ignorance, a death-trap speedboat which doesn't comply with modern safety regulations.

"This ridiculous situation means that people who want to participate in an activity, which is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people, can place others' lives in jeopardy."