A lorry driver has told an inquest he could not see a colleague who was helping him to reverse an 18-ton truck into a depot moments before he suffered fatal crush injuries.
Sim Biri-Biri Plis was at the wheel of the refrigerated Mercedes truck when he was reversing it into a yard in Manchester city centre on February 19, 2019. His colleague Lee Warburton, also a wagon driver, was acting as a ‘banksman’ helping the driver manoeuvre the truck into a delivery bay at City Towers on New York Street.
Mr Warburton, 53, a father of three from Stockport, suffered serious crush injuries. He was taken to hospital but died later. Yesterday an inquest heard evidence from his colleague and the driver of the wagon that morning, Mr Biri-Biri Plis, who admitted he had continued to reverse even though he could not see his friend.
A jury at the inquest in Manchester heard both men were employed by food and drink suppliers, Bestway Northern Ltd and were working together when they made a delivery to City Towers. Mr Biri-Biri Plis was the driver and Mr Westwood was the passenger that day although the men, both qualified drivers, had reversed their their roles on previous deliveries, the inquest was told.
The jurors were shown a five-minute compilation of CCTV, from one camera on New York Street, one on the rear of the truck and another from inside the loading bay, showing the moment Mr Warburton was pinned against a side pillar of the loading bay before collapsing to the floor. He was taken to Manchester Royal Infirmary but died later. He had three children, Tom, Katie and Amy.
The inquest was told Mr Biri-Biri Plis passed an ‘impairment test’ to confirm he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time. During the course of three police interviews, the jurors were told he told officers he had not checked his driver’s side mirror as he reversed the vehicle into the bay. A file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, the court heard.
During questioning by the coroner Zak Golombek, Mr Biri-Biri Plis admitted he continued to reverse even though he had lost sight of Mr Warburton.
Speaking with the help of a French interpreter, the witness confirmed he had qualified as a lorry driver in Spain in 2012 and that he became a ‘class 1’ qualified driver in 2015. He had driven the Mercedes truck before, he said. He said he got on with Mr Warburton ‘very well’, adding: “He was like my family in the workplace, you know.”
Mr Biri-Biri Plis told the court the atmosphere had been light-hearted that morning. He described how the pair laughed when Mr Warburton ‘farted’. The witness continued: “Mr Lee used to fart. It used to smell really bad and we used to laugh. I used to mock at him because of his farts. We were laughing.”
The coroner gave the witness a series of warnings that he was entitled not to answer the next set of questions if the answers may incriminate him. The witness answered them all.
Mr Biri-Biri Plis told the jury Mr Warburton got out of the lorry with some papers in his hand used them to motion the driver to reverse once he got to the rear of the vehicle. He said the use of documents in such way was not part of his formal training.
The witness said he could see Mr Warburton when he was on the road before he entered the depot through the wing mirrors and also with the help of the camera mounted on the rear of the truck. He moved the truck according to the hand signals he saw, he said. He said he lost sight of Mr Warburton and thought he had gone to speak to a customer.
When the coroner suggested to the witness he moved the vehicle at a time when he could see no hand signals, Mr Biri-Biri Plis said: “The last signal I received from Mr Lee was to keep going. This is what I did at the time.”
It was put to the witness he reversed further even though he could not see Mr Warburton. Mr Biri-Biri Plis said: “During the manoeuvre there was a gentleman who was going past on a bike from one side to another, from right to left, and also there’s some pedestrians. That’s why I was trying to move a little bit, to give them ways to pass.”
Asked whether he should have stopped, the witness said: “I only wanted to park the vehicle because it was a one way road and I wanted to have some space in front of me so I could get off the vehicle and go and see where he was.”
The coroner suggested to the witness he was ‘reversing blind and you could not see what was behind you’. The witness replied that, once the vehicle entered the building, only the side mirrors could be used. He said it was too dark for the rear camera to provide a clear image. He said he was sure he was using both wing mirrors.
Mr Biri-Biri Plis told the court he thought, because of the turning arc of the truck, that Mr Warburton should have stayed on the left side of the vehicle.
It was put to the witness that another witness had described Mr Biri-Biri Plis as ‘looking frustrated’ as he manoeuvred the truck. Mr Biri-Biri Plis said he was frustrated at ‘not knowing where he was’. He went on: “I was asking myself ‘where is he, where did he go?'”
When the coroner suggested there was a risk he might hit someone or something, Mr Biri-Biri Plis said: “No, there’s no risk because the only risk there could pose is when people are going past the front of me and also sideways, the side of the vehicle.”
It was put to the witness another witness who works at Bestway had said: “The driver should have stopped if the mate was no longer visible to him – this is the best principle.” Mr Biri-Biri Plis agreed.
Pressed again whether he should not have moved the vehicle if he could not see Mr Warburton, the witness said the problem he faced was ‘creating the space for a pedestrian or other vehicle to go past’. He said: “I could not go back into the road, the pavement, because it was one way. I was just trying to create space on the road for other pedestrians.”
Bernard Thoroughgood, representing Bestway Northern, suggested to the witness it was a ‘basic principle’ that a driver had to stop if they could not see their assistant.
“This is something intuitive,” said Mr Biri-Biri Plis.