Tragic cyclist’s widow wins husband’s fight for justice

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Tragic cyclist’s widow wins husband’s fight for justice

4th September 2013

Outrage as insurers force grieving wife to take on four-year legal battle
The widow of a cyclist who was seriously injured and later died after a farm vehicle collided with him near his Northamptonshire home, has finally received £168,000 in compensation.

Terri Cole’s husband John, who was 61 at the time, had been cycling on a country road when he was knocked down on 21 January, 2009. But despite the farm worker admitting charges of driving without due care and attention, it took more than four years of legal fighting for Mrs Cole to win her battle for justice.

“I’ll never forget that day,” said Mrs Cole, 62, who now lives in Leicestershire. “John and I had lunch at home. Although it was still winter it was a beautiful day and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I remember remarking on how blue the sky was,” she said. “After lunch, John decided to go for a ride on his mountain bike. He got all his gear together - his lycra suit, his bright red long-sleeved jacket, a head scarf to keep his ears warm, his crash helmet, special shoes and gloves. We joked about how glamorous he looked in all the gear, which was supposed to make him very visible to other road users.”

Mrs Cole, a former deputy headteacher, said her husband told her his route and how long he would be, as was usual, before he set off. But just half an hour later, at around 2.30pm, she received a phone call. “I didn’t recognise the number and when I answered the caller told me that my husband had been in an accident.”

Mr Cole had been injured after a farm vehicle collided with him from behind on an unmarked gated road between Guilsborough and Cold Ashby, less than two miles from home. “After what seemed an eternity, but was probably less than five minutes, I got to the spot where the farm worker who had phoned me was waiting,” said Mrs Cole. “I still couldn’t see John. Then I heard and saw the Air Ambulance circling overhead.”

When she reached her husband, Mrs Cole found him lying at the side of the road. “John was motionless when I arrived, although he did moan and I think he knew I was there,” she said. “I was hysterical as I knew it was extremely serious. There was a farm vehicle to the left and I saw silage bails sticking off the front of it, and there were a few people around wearing farm overalls. They all looked shocked.

“I wasn’t allowed to go in the Air Ambulance with John as there wasn’t enough room, and the medics told me they were taking him to Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry.  I knew that his life was still hanging in the balance. His blood pressure was very low, and I heard the concerns of the medical team to get him airlifted as soon as possible.”

Mr Cole had sustained a serious spinal cord injury in the incident, and he was later transferred to Stoke Mandeville specialist hospital, where he stayed for more than six months. “It was a horrific time,” said Mrs Cole. “Having to phone our two daughters that first night was incredibly tough, and then as time went on things just seemed to get worse. Not only was he very seriously injured physically, but he also suffered a brain injury. We were told it was going to be a very long road ahead, and advised to ensure we claimed compensation to help pay for all the care and rehabilitation costs we would need in the future.”

The couple contacted Deborah Johnson (right), head of the Serious and Fatal Incidents department at Fentons Solicitors LLP, to represent them in their claim.

“John’s injuries were so life-changing that the family home was no longer going to be suitable for him and so we secured an interim payment of £500,000 from the driver’s insurer to purchase a specially-adapted home,” said Mrs Johnson, a partner with the firm. “John was discharged from Stoke Mandeville to a nursing home whilst Terri looked for a suitable property. But tragically, shortly after an appropriate property had been found, adaptations discussed and arranged and then contracts exchanged, John died from pneumonia.”

Following Mr Cole’s tragic death in December 2009, his wife decided to continue the fight for justice on his behalf. “This was never about money,” said Mrs Cole, “I just wanted to make sure that whoever was responsible was held to account.”

Because Mr Cole had died within 12 months of the original accident, the police investigation into the collision was re-opened to see whether a ‘causing death’ charge could be brought against the driver. Although the defendant had pleaded guilty to a charge of driving without due care and attention, he pleaded not guilty to the new charge of causing death by careless driving and was subsequently acquitted by a Crown Court jury.

“This whole process meant that we couldn’t hold John’s funeral for more than a year, and the trial didn’t take place until almost two years after his death,” said Mrs Cole. “Then after the trial, Deborah explained that the driver’s insurers were denying liability.”

Mrs Johnson, an expert in cases involving serious road collisions, said that the defendant’s insurers launched a vigorous defence of Mrs Cole’s claim.

“After John’s death, his claim for future care was replaced by a claim for his pain and suffering before his death, for Terri’s loss of dependency and for the post-traumatic stress she suffered after having attended the scene of the original accident,” said Mrs Johnson. “Incredibly, despite initially agreeing an interim payment of a half a million pounds when John was still in hospital, following his death and the driver’s trial, the insurers changed their approach and strenuously denied liability, blaming John for the accident in an effort to avoid reaching a settlement.”

Following Mr Cole’s death, the large interim payment had to be repaid and obviously the new property could no longer be purchased, nor was it needed by Mrs Cole. “The builders had already started a lot of the modification work, but fortunately they were wonderful, showing enormous sympathy and compassion and they waived the costs they’d already incurred so that I didn’t face another huge bill,” said Mrs Cole. “If they hadn’t have done that I don’t know what I would have done.”

Mrs Johnson said she was disgusted with the way Mrs Cole was then treated. “John was a salesman and, although he had recently been made redundant, he was looking for a new job to take him up to retirement age,” said Deborah. “When he passed away, not only did Terri lose her husband of many years – which was devastating in itself – but it also put a massive burden on her financially.

“In the same letter in which they denied liability, the defendant insurers told Terri they were prepared to let her keep £58,000 - the equivalent of the interim payments made since John’s accident – which was also to include her legal costs. This was just insulting.”

Refusing to back down, Mrs Cole said: “I knew no amount of money was going to bring John back, but there was a principle at stake. They were suggesting this was somehow his fault, and I wasn’t having that.”

Mrs Johnson said once Mrs Cole had resolved to fight on, the insurers were forced to take the case seriously. “We issued court proceedings to ensure they realised Terri was not prepared to concede defeat so easily,” she said. “Around nine months later, we managed to secure a settlement of just over £168,000 - almost three times the amount they had offered Terri immediately after the criminal trial.

“I find it quite appalling, what the insurance company put Terri through,” she said. “When John was first seriously injured, there was a sensible approach and early interim payments to help with John’s rehabilitation and care needs and to find a suitable house. But when he died – a time when you would think there would be an even greater level of compassion – they instead decided to fight his wife’s much smaller claim tooth and nail.”

Mrs Johnson said she hoped Mrs Cole would now be able to draw a line under her ordeal and begin the process of trying to move on with her life. “This has been such a long and painful fight for Terri and her family, but she has been remarkably resilient throughout this whole experience,” she said. “She is an inspiration, and I hope she takes comfort from the fact that she has proved to anyone else facing a legal fight for justice that although the battle might be long, it is one worth fighting and can still be won.”

Mrs Cole said she hoped that by speaking about her four-year ordeal, it might bring comfort to anyone else who has lost a loved one and is worried about the lengthy legal battle ahead. “This has been the hardest time of my life,” she said, “but if by speaking about it helps anyone else who is unfortunate enough to find themselves in a similar situation, then at least some small piece of good can come out of this whole dreadful ordeal,” she said.