Coroner’s inquests include two single-vehicle accidents and three water sports-related deaths
Queen’s Coroner Eileen Nervik travelled to Cayman Brac to hold seven inquests during the week of 5 November. The sudden deaths being looked into all occurred in the Sister Islands, but with some witnesses in Grand Cayman the court made use of video link technology to receive evidence.
Senior network administrator Delroy Bodden confirmed it was the first video link he had set up for any court sitting in Cayman Brac, although he has done it for in-house matters at the government administration building in Stake Bay.
The inquests were initially to have been held at the Aston Rutty Centre, but were moved to the conference room in the Stake Bay building. Witnesses in Grand Cayman attended at the Law Courts Building in downtown George Town.
The witness most frequently seen via video link was Dr. Shravana Jyoti, head of the Pathology Department at the Health Services Authority in George Town. He explained medical terms used in the autopsy reports and answered questions.
Eleven potential jurors attended court each day for the selection of seven. The coroner therefore gave an opening statement before the first inquest to explain the reasons and procedures for it. She repeated an abbreviated version each morning, explaining that an inquest is an inquiry to establish facts surrounding a sudden death.
No one is on trial in respect of either civil or criminal liability, she said. An inquest is held to satisfy the community that a death will not be overlooked, she said. The jury had to decide whether a death was by natural causes, misadventure or by suicide. If the evidence was insufficient for a verdict to be reached, the jury would return an open verdict, she instructed.
In the seven inquests conducted, juries returned two verdicts of death by natural causes and five by misadventure. This term was defined as an act or omission deliberately done, but with unintended consequences.
JOHN PATRICK BERNARD, 23: Mr. Bernard died on 25 August, 2007, at Scott’s Development Company Quarry. He had worked for the company four years. He was helping co-workers clean out rock from a new coarse-material washer that had jammed. After it started running again, Mr. Bernard stood up on the edge of the large rock-washing tank and then he slipped and fell into the screw, which is a large metal spiral. A co-worker, Leo Consolacion, grabbed his shirt, but the turning screw caught Mr. Bernard’s leg. This happened shortly after 1pm.
Mr. Consolacion shouted for the operator to stop the machine. Aladino Perol said he went to the top of the tank, which was filled with water and he could see only Mr. Patrick’s feet until the water was let out.
Supervisor Jose Zalaya said he had earlier seen Mr. Bernard and a co-worker sitting on the edge of the tank and had told them to move from there. No one was supposed to sit on the washing plant, he said. In terms of safety, Mr. Zelaya said that when men are hired, “we show them what to do and keep showing them until they learn it … If they do something wrong, we tell them the right way to do it; we talk to them.” Managing director Paul Wayne Scott said safety precautions were mainly taught on the job. He said the machine was bought new and arrived on 31 July, 2007; it was installed about a week later. It did not come with any protective covering. He indicated that the screw turned at 50 revolutions per minute.
Alvin Smith said he was the person in charge of the crusher and all the equipment that produced the materials. That was the first day he had asked Mr. Bernard to help. After Mr. Bernard fell in, they bailed out the water and could see him.
A doctor attended the scene and pronounced him dead at 2.25pm, but he could not be removed from the tank until a portion of its wall was cut away with a torch. An autopsy showed that physical cause of death was a high cervical fracture due to blunt trauma to the head, neck, chest, abdomen and extremities. Other evidence included photos. The jury returned a verdict of misadventure.
ANN KATHRYN WALTHER, 52: An American scuba instructor who lived and worked in Little Cayman, Ms Walther was found deceased at her home on 8 July, 2011, after she did not show up for work and friends went to check on her. Police found no signs of forced entry and no signs of violence.
She was described by acquaintances as a conscientious worker and excellent dive instructor, sociable but not a party girl, healthy but with a thyroid problem that she took prescribed medication for.
Mr. Jyoti said the autopsy included toxicology reports. Analysis of Ms Walther’s blood samples showed high hormone levels that should not have been seen in a hypothyroid patient on medication. He said some patients took more than their prescribed dosage in an attempt to correct symptoms, but these increased levels could cause rapid heart rate. The most likely cause of death appeared to be sudden cardiac death associated with long-standing hypothyroidism. The jury adopted this finding and returned a verdict of death by natural causes.
ELMO NEPTALY POWELL ALVARENGA, 25: A Honduran national living in Grand Cayman, Mr. Alverenga was visiting the Brac, where he had worked previously. He was the driver of a vehicle that collided with the Brac Power and Light Company building in the early hours of 1 May, 2011. It was a 25 mile per hour zone; accident reconstructionist Collin Redden calculated the vehicle’s speed at 50 to 60 mph. Yaw marks on the road were consistent with someone dozing off at the wheel, drifting to the other side of the road and then over-correcting his course. He was not wearing a seat belt.
Mr. Alvarenga’s blood/alcohol level was .064, which was under the legal limit, but Mr. Redden said alcohol could have been a contributing factor because it would have slowed reaction time. Mr. Jyoti said the physical cause of death was a laceration of the main blood vessel of the heart, due to blunt force impact. The jury adopted this finding and returned a verdict of misadventure.
RISHA BOVE, 70: Ms Bove, an American citizen residing in Texas, was scuba diving with the Cayman Aggressor group close to Little Cayman Beach resort on 13 September, 2010. She did two dives with a safe surface interval between them. However, she surfaced after three minutes into the second dive and had difficulty breathing. Boat crew gave her oxygen and CPR, which continued as she was transported to shore by another vessel. After almost two hours of CPR she was pronounced dead. Her dive computer showed that she had made unsafe rapid ascents on both dives.
Mr. Jyoti said the physical cause of death was acute pulmonary barotrauma and drowning. The jury’s verdict was misadventure.
ERIC DANNIE DIXON, 23: Mr. Dixon was the driver of a rental car that hit the B.B. Grant Building in West End and a car parked in front of it in the early hours of 22 January, 2009. He was not wearing a seat belt. There was evidence that he was speeding along with another driver; both cars were examined for pre-accident contact damage, but none was found. Speed was calculated at 50.52 mph.
Mr. Redden said the car Mr. Dixon was driving was not roadworthy; its axle boots, right steering boot, tie rod ends and left rear strut were all defective and three tires were snow tires, not meant for hot climates because the tread is softer. The coroner wondered how the vehicle had passed inspection.
The autopsy report showed that Mr. Dixon’s blood/alcohol level was .138, which is over the legal limit of .100. The pathologist concluded that he died of multiple blunt force injuries including fatal head injuries. The jury adopted this as the physical cause of death with intoxication and the defective vehicle as contributing factors. The verdict was misadventure.
GEORGE JOHN MEYER, 68: Mr. Meyer, a visitor from New York, took a day trip from Grand Cayman to the Brac, where he drowned while swimming on his own. An autopsy showed contusions to his scalp, and tiny bruises and abrasions to his face, but these were not blunt force injuries and not related to violence. Mr. Jyoti said. The injuries were consistent with contact with coral reefs, he explained, noting that he had visited the scene.
Mr. Meyer’s lungs weighed 1,510 grams, when they should have weighed about 850 grams. This and other findings indicated drowning. Significant contributing factors were the contusions to the head and face, plus advanced hypertensive and cardiovascular disease. The jury adopted these findings and gave a verdict of misadventure.
CHARLES WARD, 67: Mr. Ward, from North Carolina, had been a paraplegic for 44 years, confined to a wheel chair. He had been diving for 25 years and came to the Brac with his wife and friends for vacation. They went diving on 17 January, 2011, and all went well, his wife reported. The next day, he went into the water before she did. When the dive master told her Mr. Ward was drifting, she went to him. She saw him start to descend and then bump into a rock. A buddy helped her get him to the surface.
Mr. Jyoti said the autopsy showed signs of hypertensive heart disease, with the heart enlarged and an 80 per cent narrowing of the left coronary artery. Microscopic findings indicated an acute cardiac event, or heart attack, in the water, he said. There was some inhalation of water but this was after the cardiac event, he explained. The jury returned a verdict of death by natural causes.
An inquest is an inquiry to establish facts surrounding a sudden death. No one is on trial in respect of either civil or criminal liability.