Arctic Expedition Inquest

CORONER RETURNS NARATIVE VERDICT FOLLOWING INQUEST INTO TRAGIC DEATH DUE TO POLAR BEAR ATTACK DURING CHILDREN’S ARCTIC EXPEDITION

Eton College student, Horatio Chapple, tragically died on an expedition to the Norwegian Svalbard Islands in Norway in August 2011 after being mauled to death by a polar bear. Gary Boyd, Partner, Hilary Meredith Solicitors Ltd is pursuing a civil action against the organisers of the expedition, British Schools Exploring Society (BSES, re-branded as British exploring since the accident) on behalf of Patrick Flinders, another student who sustained serious injuries in the attack.

At 7.30 am the group were asleep in their tents when the bear reared up and ‘slammed down’ on the 17 year old Eton student as he emerged from his tent causing fatal head, neck and facial injuries. The bear then attacked others including Patrick Flinders, biting with such force that he fractured Patrick’s skull.

A post-mortem examination of the polar bear found it to be elderly, undernourished and with worn down teeth which would probably have made him “stressed, aggressive and more unpredictable” than a younger bear.

Following a five-week long inquest into the tragic death of Horatio Chapple, Ian Singleton, assistant Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon, returned a narrative verdict.

The Coroner’s inquest considered issues such as:

  • The tripwire alarm system had failed to activate probably due to a supporting post being knocked over by the bear. Missing parts required the system to be modified which made it unstable, allowing the bear to enter the camp undetected.
  • Only group leaders were kitted out with pen flares to scare off a bear but due to the time taken to assemble them, they would not have been of use in this situation.
  • Trip leader, Michael Reid, attempted to shoot the bear with the group’s Mauser 98K rifle but his first attempts were unsuccessful. He did finally manage to fire the rifle and kill the bear but only after he had been attacked and seriously injured. Mr Singleton ruled that Horatio had already received fatal injuries and the delay of the rifle fire would not have saved his life.

The BSES commissioned High Court Judge, Sir David Steel to examine what happened in the horrific incident. His report, which was published to coincide with the inquest, includes the following:

  • It concludes that the tripwire system – of a kind principally used by gamekeepers to protect bird pens from foxes – was “defective in terms of missing pieces of equipment”.
  • It highlighted problems with the way the party’s Mauser 98K rifle, which dated back to the Second World War, was stored and handled. Sir David concluded it must have been stored with the safety catch in a position that disabled the firing mechanism. Training in the use of the rifle was “very limited” amounting to “some general handling and the firing of four shots.”
  • The report pointed out that no guard – or “bear watch” – was organised though bears had been seen in the area and pack ice drifting close to shore increased the likelihood of one being there.

Five members of the group were badly injured including Patrick Flinders from Jersey. He suffered, in addition to a fractured skull, a mutilated left eye and ear and deep puncture wounds on his right arm, along with psychological symptoms. Gary Boyd, Partner at Hilary Meredith Solicitors continues with the claim on behalf of Patrick against the British Schools Exploring Society ­over the ­£2,700-a-head trip to the Arctic.