Three British teachers have been found not guilty of the equivalent of manslaughter by gross negligence after the death of a “beautiful and outgoing” 12-year-old pupil on a French school trip.
Jessica Lawson, from Wolfreton school in Willerby, near Hull, died when a pontoon capsized in a lake near Limoges in south-west central France. She was the youngest student on the trip in July 2015.
At the Palais de Justice in the French town of Tulle on Wednesday, Steven Layne, Chantelle Lewis and Daisy Stathers were all cleared of any wrongdoing. Local prosecutors had argued the trio deserved three years in jail for their part in the girl’s death. The lifeguard on duty at the time, Leo Lemaire, and the local authority in the town of Liginiac were also found not guilty.
Jessica’s father, Tony Lawson, left the courtroom when the verdicts were announced, with Lewis and Stathers breaking down in tears.
The trial heard how Lewis and Stathers began to “panic” after noticing Jessica was missing, and both teachers became emotional on the witness stand during Tuesday’s proceedings.
Layne said he thought the pontoon was a safety feature and saw no signs of distress when he looked at the lifeguard after it capsized.
Arguing that the local authority should be fined €45,000 for its part in Jessica’s death, the prosecutor, Myriam Soria, said: “Jessica Lawson was a good swimmer. She was a little girl. Her swimming should have been monitored with vigilance.” None of the teachers could see where Jessica was during the swim owing to a lack of surveillance, she added, recommending they be punished with three-year jail terms.
However, Florian Godest Le Gall, a legal representative for Lewis, a PE teacher, said the teachers’ reaction times were the shortest possible, adding that dynamically monitoring children does not mean looking at one student “every microsecond”. He said his client “suffers under the weight of responsibility”.
Anis Harabi, acting for Layne, said Jessica’s death was an accident with no “culprits”, adding that his client should not be expected to be a “clairvoyant”. The teachers did not think the water was dangerous because the swimming zone was “supervised”, the lawyer added.
After Jessica’s death, Dave McCready, the headteacher at Wolfreton school, said her death was a “terrible tragedy” and a “dreadful shock to the whole school community”.
Her family said she was “the most beautiful and outgoing girl”. Posting on Facebook after her death while he was waiting for his daughter’s body to be released to be flown home, Lawson wrote: “This only happens to other people! Yesterday we became those ‘other people’, we lost our beautiful, loving and kind daughter Jessica in tragic circumstances in France.
“We are here for her and are waiting to get her back home to be remembered for ever. We all love you and miss you. All our love for ever and ever.”