Five people have pleaded not guilty to charges relating to a horrific sightseeing tour bus accident which saw two passengers die after the bus’s top deck struck a tree branch.
Bus driver Charles D’Amato and company directors Kim Degabriele, Noel Degabriele, Philip Degabriele and Lee Anne Borg all pleaded not guilty to involuntarily causing the deaths of Belgian national Kaenraad Richard De Vrieze, 62 and Elisaveta Danielova Avdala, 37, from Spain.
They were also charged with causing injuries to 21 other passengers.
27 year-old D’Amato had been behind the wheel of the bus when it struck a low-lying tree branch in Valletta Road in Zurrieq in April 2018.
As the case was called this morning, Magistrate Joe Mifsud upbraided the prosecution, after the defence pointed out that four of the six charges were time-barred by the lapse of two years.
Prosecuting Superintendent Josric Mifsud, together with Inspector Giannetta Grixti confirmed to the court that the incident had occurred on 9 April 2018 and the charges had been presented in court on 16 February 2021.
The prosecution said they had issued the charges as soon as they had received the case file from the court, differently presided. It arrived at the police on 10 January signed by magistrate Monica Vella, said the superintendent. The charges were issued after the police had done its research, he said.
The court referred to a circular issued to the police by AC Mario Spiteri where he reminded that previous circulars in 1986 and 1997 gave guidelines to police prosecutors about “prosecution in the absence of the proces verbal.”
Superintendent Mifsud said the police’s motivation was to have a “learned decision” on how to proceed. “This was not a clear cut case and we wanted direction.”
“If you were aware that the charges were time barred, why did you issue them anyway?” demanded the court. The superintendent quoted a section of the Criminal Code on prescription, but lawyer Franco Debono, argued that this article did not apply to the case.
Testifying about the investigation, from the witness stand, Superintendent Johann Cremona said he had gone to the scene and “hadn’t seen anything like it before.”
The bus was parked on the Valletta-bound lane. Heavy damage to the bus’ front left quarter. “The left hand side of it was covered in blood, which was dripping on to the road.”
“On the top part of bus I saw two bodies, a man and a woman…I could see that she had suffered a large impact to her face and her right eye socket was protruding. Nearby there was the body of the Belgian man, whose left arm was missing, as he had been resting it on the top railing while the bus was in motion.”
Investigations showed that a large tree branch was abraded and there were traces of the bus’ red paint on it. “Debris, glass, branches and the man’s arm were found in the road. A few metres away a mobile phone was found, thought to belong to driver.” No brake marks were seen on the road, he said.
Of the 54 passengers, 19 were treated at a polyclinic, 33 at hospital – some in a grievous condition and 2 were dead, he said.
The majority of the passengers had testified to the magisterial inquiry into the incident. None had said the driver was acting recklessly. Two had said they thought he was going too fast because of the wind in their hair. There were no sudden manoeuvres to avoid oncoming obstructions, Cremona said.
An expert had told the inquiry that the tree had been there a long time and, despite strong winds having gripped Malta in the days before the incident, it didn’t appear to have been affected by this.
The tree branch involved in the collision had later been removed as a precaution, he said.
The driver had been engaged on a part-time basis and had all the necessary licences and Transport Malta tags.
Under interrogation, D’Amato said he had called another driver who told him to change route, but this was contradicted by the other driver and D’Amato had refused to disclose his phone PIN to the police.
The magistrate asked about the time-barring issue. It was a serious case and it was thought to be wise to wait for the process-verbal from the magistrate, he said.
Lawyer Franco Debono cross-examined, asking about the branch which was removed. “The expert said that the wind had not affected it. It was weak and had to be removed,” replied the witness.
Debono read from the expert’s report: “it had to be removed to avoid other incidents.”
Fenech clarified that “the branch was protruding but you had to be driving next to the pavement to hit it.”
The case continues on 12 March.
Inspector Giannetta Grixti and Supt Josric Mifsud are prosecuting.
Lawyers Shazoo Ghaznavi, Alessia Zammit Mackeon and Franco Debono are defence counsel.