Claps and cheers erupted in an Adelaide courtroom after a paramedic was cleared of dangerous driving charges relating to a tragic crash that claimed the life of a patient.Matthew James McLean, 42, was behind the wheel of a bariatric ambulance that rolled at Virgina, north of the CBD, in 2016, killing Karen Biddell, 48.
He pleaded not guilty to causing death by dangerous driving, arguing that he was suffering from undiagnosed sleep apnoea at the time of the crash.
Delivering her verdict on Friday, District Court judge Sophie David said she could not exclude the reasonable possibility that the condition caused Mr McLean to veer off the road and onto an embankment.
But she said her not guilty finding in no way detracted from the tragedy of Ms Biddell’s death.
As they had throughout the trial, a large group of paramedics in uniform packed the court to hear the verdict.
Mr McLean, who was also found not guilty of two counts of causing harm by dangerous driving, cried and hugged supporters after the decision was handed down.
He made no comment to reporters outside court; however, Phil Palmer of the Ambulance Employees Association of SA said justice had been served.
“This gives us faith in the justice system,” he said.
“We said from day one it should never have got here, it did get here.
“Mr McLean can now get on with his life after four years for him and his young family.”
Mr Palmer said the outcome was a relief for paramedics across Australia.
“Because of the nature of their job, and the lack of support from employers and governments, they constantly face the struggle of fatigue,” he said.
Mr McLean’s case was initially put before a jury but was decided by Judge David after jurors were discharged during South Australia’s coronavirus shutdown.
During the trial, the court heard Mr McLean was driving Ms Biddell from her home near Port Pirie, north of Adelaide, to the Royal Adelaide Hospital for non-urgent treatment for leg ulcers.
Prosecutors said the heater in the ambulance was set to 25 degrees, and Mr McLean had engaged the cruise control as he headed southbound towards Virginia.
The five-tonne vehicle first started to drift, and it struck a small tree on a grass median strip.
It partially straightened up, but the ambulance then veered on to an embankment.
“That caused the ambulance to roll,” prosecutor Mark Norman SC said.
“It rolls over once and completely. It actually ends up upright.”
Ms Biddell was killed and her daughter was injured, along with another paramedic travelling in the back.
Mr Norman said Mr McLean told people at the scene that he had fallen asleep behind the wheel, and he needed coffee to “keep himself going” that night.
He also said an examination of work records revealed Mr McLean had volunteered to work overtime and had done 11 shifts in the 12 days preceding.
That included four night shifts in the five days prior to the August 16 date of the crash, Mr Norman said.
However, Mr McLean’s defence team said an expert had determined that he was unknowingly suffering from sleep apnoea when the crash happened about 2.30am.
They argued that he would not have been driving that night if he had been aware of the risks.