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Skipper and company owner avoid jail over speedboat death of Emily Lewis,15

The family of a 15-year-old girl who was killed in a speedboat crash have tearfully described the moment her life support system was turned off as the “coward” skipper and company owner avoided being sent to prison.

Emily Lewis suffered fatal injuries after the rigid inflatable boat (Rib) collided with a 4.5m high buoy at 36.6 knots in Southampton Water on August 22 2020, with a number of other passengers being seriously injured.

Michael Lawrence, 55, who was driving the boat, was found not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence, but guilty of failing to maintain a proper lookout and failing to proceed at a safe speed.

Speedboat driver Michael Lawrence was acquitted of manslaughter but found guilty of failing to maintain a proper lookout and failing to maintain a safe speed (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Speedboat driver Michael Lawrence was cleared of manslaughter but found guilty of failing to maintain a proper lookout and failing to maintain a safe speed (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Michael Howley, 52, the owner of the now defunct Seadogz which ran the boat trips, was convicted of not operating the boat safely.

They were both sentenced at Winchester Crown Court  on Friday to 18 weeks in custody suspended for two years, ordered to complete 125 hours of community service and pay £1,000 of court costs.

The judge, Mr Justice Butcher said: “It is still unknown exactly why you, Michael Lawrence, drove the Rib as you did.

“I am sure the accident was not caused by your deliberately driving at the buoy or aiming to go close and swerve away, instead what happened must have been the result of inattention or distraction.”

Explaining his decision not to send Lawrence to prison, the judge said: “There is a real prospect of rehabilitation, Mr Lawrence can be said to have rehabilitated himself by abandoning maritime practices.”

Christine Agnew KC, prosecuting, told the trial that Emily’s parents, Simon and Nicola, had decided to take their daughters Emily and Amy for the “high thrills” speedboat ride travelling at speeds up to 47.8 knots.

As part of the ride, which took place in “perfect conditions”, the Stormforce 950 Rib crossed the wake of the Red Falcon ferry five times before heading towards the North West Netley buoy.

The Rib sped straight at the buoy at a speed of 36.6 knots for 14 seconds before hitting it, throwing two passengers into the water and injuring several others.

Emily suffered severe internal injuries after being crushed against the metal handle in front of her.

She was taken ashore by another Rib and then by ambulance to hospital.

Michael Howley, 51, the owner of boat trip company, Seadogz (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Michael Howley, 51, the owner of boat trip company, Seadogz (Andrew Matthews/PA)

She died after her family took the decision to turn off her life support system after being told by doctors that she had suffered oxygen starvation to the brain and her injuries were “unsurvivable”.

Ms Agnew said that Lawrence, described by his co-defendant as “Mr Safe”, initially said that a Covid-19 face mask had blown into his face blocking his vision but had later changed his account.

The former lifeboatman told the trial that he had lost his vision momentarily prior to hitting the buoy.

The court heard that a medical cause such as a blood clot in an artery in his eye was unlikely to have caused vision loss as it was unlikely to have affected both eyes at once.

Reading her victim impact statement to the court, Emily’s mother Nicola, wiping back tears, said looking at Lawrence: “Emily was a fun, quiet, caring young girl with a wicked sense of humour. We loved her so much but now our hearts are empty.

“You have taken away from us not being able to see Emily grow into the beautiful young lady, the amazing adult that she would have been. I will never forgive you for this.

“I go back to that day, all I can see is Emily’s blue lips and her saying to me that she cannot breathe. I was not able to hold her and comfort her because of my other injuries. It wasn’t until I was in the rescue boat that I scrambled over to where she was so that she knew that I was there with her.

“The paramedics took Emily and that is the last time I saw her until she was in a hospital bed. I remember screaming, hearing Amy scream and this is when I knew we were going to have to turn the life support machine off.

“I couldn’t help her and this haunts me daily. I cannot get the image out of my head. That is why I survive and not live because of what you did to me and my family on that day.

“It is two and a half years and you have kept us in this hell, you could have taken responsibility for what happened that day but you have chosen not to. To me, you are just a coward only thinking about yourself. You show no remorse.

“You are a weak man. I hope that your sentence gives you an opportunity to reflect on what you have done.

“You never once stepped up for anyone on the boat that day.”

The sight-seeing boat which crashed killing Emily Lewis (MAIB/PA)
The sight-seeing boat which crashed killing Emily Lewis (MAIB/PA)

Emily’s father, Simon, said: “The death of my amazing, wonderful daughter Emily has truly broken me.

“There is no day, hour or minute that I do not think about her. I miss her so much that some days that pain is physical. I want and need her back in my life, yet I know that this is not possible.

“I will now always have traumatic memories of seeing Emily on that day. When I passed her to you after the accident so that you could put her on the speedboat that came to help us, I can vividly see her skin smooth and pale as alabaster and her lips already looking blue.

“I hope you remember this too. I hope that this is what you see in your mind’s eye when you wake up and before you sleep.

“On that day I also had to make the decision to turn the machines off that were keeping her alive and then to sit with her while I watched the light dim from her eyes.

“No parent should have to see this.

“I reminded her while I sat holding her hand, knowing full well that she could not hear me as she had already passed away at this point, that I would remember her as a baby holding my finger while she had her bottle.”

Criticising Lawrence for being “unprofessional, terse and dismissive” in the moments after the crash, Mr Lewis added: “I find it very disappointing that you were not strong enough to admit you made a mistake.

“This has extended the suffering to me and my family and is making it incredibly difficult to grieve Emily and to move past 22nd August 2020.”

Emily’s sister Amy, who was 18 at the time of he accident and suffered a fractured arm, said: “The 22nd of August 2020 was the last day I saw my sister. The last day I got to hear her voice, hold her hand and see her smile.

“To describe it as the worst day of my life would be an understatement, no words can describe the deep pain and suffering of that day, it’s pain you cannot speak of, only experience, and for the last two years I have felt this very feeling every day.”

Miss Lewis described how her grief for her sister, “her forever person”, had left her struggling to find a reason to continue living and added: “The way I feel and the way I have felt for the last two-and-a-half years is a feeling I wouldn’t wish on anyone, not even you Mr Lawrence.”

Mark Ashley, defending Lawrence, of Blackfield, New Forest, said that his client’s actions were “out of character” and added: “We are dealing with a good man who has made a mistake.

“He is deeply, deeply affected by what has happened. There isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t wish it was he who died.”

Describing Mr Howley’s “adhoc” approach to safety measures, David Richards, prosecuting, said: “He exposed his customers to the risk of a Rib ride where the necessary safety measures hadn’t been taken.”

Speedboat death court case
Tributes have been paid to Emily Lewis outside court (Hampshire Police/PA)

The court previously heard that Seadogz had received three complaints from passengers suffering back injuries in 10 years – with one person injured during a ride in 2012 receiving a £300,000 payout.

Keely Harvey, representing Howley, of Hordle, Hampshire, said that he “cared” about the safety of his passengers and added: “He is highly remorseful, he is a man who will be forever affected by this.”

Speaking outside court, the family said their “preference” would have been custodial sentences.

They added that they would be writing to their local MP Suella Braverman, calling for tighter laws on the safe use of sea vessels.

Reading a statement on behalf of the family, Mr Lewis said: “After two-and-a-half long years we have managed to get some of the justice that Emily so deserved, and that the responsibility for her death as well as the life-changing injuries to the other passengers on board that day has finally been proven.

“There is however some disappointment that Mr Lawrence was not convicted of gross negligence manslaughter considering the level of injury caused and the death of Emily.

“Also the suspended sentence is quite hard to accept.

“Every one of us on the boat, including Mr Lawrence, were seriously affected both physically and mentally by the mistakes he made on that day.

“The path has been long to get here today, and it would have been easier if Mr Lawrence had been able to admit his mistake sooner but sadly, he was unable or unwilling to do so.

“Neither Mr Lawrence nor Mr Howley have apologised for what happened on that fateful day. Not even when given a chance by their own legal teams. I found this to be highly disrespectful not only to the survivors of the collision, but also to Emily.

“Due to the haphazard implementation of the guidance by Mr Howley, which if it had been followed more rigorously would have likely resulted in there being no crash, and Mr Lawrence’s over-confidence in his abilities, all of us on the rib that day have found ourselves in this incredibly dire situation of serious injuries and most obviously, the death of Emily.

“We do appreciate that Mr Lawrence did not set out that day for events to happen in this tragic way.

“However, the way in which he dealt with the unfolding situation fell far below our expectations of the very qualified mariner he was known to be.

“The lack of empathy shown by him that day is not easy to understand.

“I do hope that the safety concerns raised by this case can help other people to continue to have fun on the water but with a reduced risk of injury or indeed, death.

“We would like to thank the Police and Crown Prosecution Service who were incredibly kind to us and have all worked so hard.

“Also Ms Agnew KC and Mr Richards for their outstanding work in this case. I would also like to thank the jury for their work as well.

“The support of our family and friends has humbled Nikki, Amy and I so much. They have stood strong with us along every step of the way.

“As you may imagine, not a day goes by without us missing Emily. The loss of someone so young, vital, and full of life is truly a burden to bear.

“We would like to be left alone now to be able to process this result.

“After the events of today, we now hope that we may be able to start to rebuild our lives and be able to grieve for the loss of our wonderful daughter, Emily.”