Family of stonemason who drowned when cage fell into river settle case for €1.1m

TJ O’Herlihy died when he became trapped in a cage that fell into the River Shannon nine years ago

TJ O’Herlihy died alongside Bryan Whelan after being trapped in the river Shannon in Limerick city on August 29th, 2015. Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22

A €1.1 million settlement has been reached in High Court proceedings brought by the family of a man who drowned after the steel cage carrying him and his colleagues as they worked on a Limerick bridge suddenly dropped into the river.

Stonemason and father-of-two TJ O’Herlihy, from Castleisland, Co Kerry, was 36 years of age when he and his colleague Bryan Whelan (29), O’Briensbridge, Co Clare, were trapped in the cage that fell into the river Shannon nine years ago.

The two men drowned, while their co-worker, Paul Murphy, from Askeaton, Co Limerick, managed to free his harness and was rescued by emergency first responders after he was swept out along the Shannon estuary.

The stonemasons had been harnessed into the cage and were wearing life jackets while they carried out specialised repair works on the south side of Thomond Bridge in Limerick city when the tragedy occurred on August 29th, 2015.

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In the High Court on Tuesday, Mr O’Herlihy’s partner, Therese Wigsten, and children settled a High Court action over his death. Ms Wigsten attended the hearing by remote link from her home in Sweden and Mr O’Herlihy’s father Tim O’Herlihy, from Castleisland, Co Kerry, attended at the Four Courts for the settlement ruling.

The family’s counsel Maura McNally SC instructed by Andrew O’Connell solicitor told the court that a cable holding the steel cage had snapped as the men worked on Thomond Bridge, Limerick.

She said it had been Mr O’Herlihy’s first day on the job as he recently had returned to Ireland and his partner and children Conor, then aged four, and baby Katherine were due to join him in Ireland from Sweden.

Mr Justice Paul Coffey was told that the settlement was reached after mediation without an admission of liability.

Ms Wigsten from Sodertalje, Sweden, had sued Gaelach Droichead Ltd trading as Irish Bridge with registered offices at Ballyengland, Askeaton, Co Limerick; his employer, Paul Mulcair Ltd of the same address; Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd trading as NCG Crane with registered offices at Dock Road, Limerick City; Palfinger Ireland Ltd with registered offices at Cloncollig Industrial Estate, Tullamore, Co Offaly; Limerick City and County Council and Malachy Walsh and Co Ltd with registered offices at Park House, Mahon Technology Park, Bessboro Road, Blackrock, Co Cork.

It was claimed that Mr O’Herlihy was in the “man cage” being raised by a crane when suddenly and without warning it dropped into the river.

It was further claimed there was an alleged failure to provide a safe place of work and a safe system of work and Mr O’Herlihy had been allegedly required to work in circumstances and conditions where it was allegedly known or ought to have been known were unsafe and dangerous.

All the claims were denied by all the defendants.

Mr Justice Coffey noted the settlement which he said was fair and reasonable and the division of the €35,000 statutory mental distress payment. The judge also extended his deepest sympathy to Mr O’Herlihy’s family in Sweden and Kerry.

Two companies in 2022 were fined a total of €225,000 after pleading guilty at Limerick Circuit Court to breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act in relation to the incident.

Judge Tom O’Donnell imposed a fine of €200,000 on Nationwide Crane Hire Ltd, Dock Road, Limerick, and a €25,000 fine on Palfinger Ireland Ltd, Tullamore, Co Offaly.

The court heard a safety mechanism aimed at preventing weight overloading on the crane had failed, resulting in “unbearable stress” on a wire rope that was holding the men in a steel cage platform hanging over the side of the bridge.

In a victim impact statement at the time, Ms Wigsten said their children Katie and Conor had lost one of the most important people in their lives, their dad.

Katie wrote: “Life would have been more beautiful and nicer if Dad was alive, we would have been a family of four, he could help me with homework and pick me up from school, and if I could turn back time I would tell Dad never to take the job so he could be with us.”

Conor wrote: “I miss my dad, I wish he was here to help me, to carry me and play with me, I wish he could help me in school.”