A long-time drug addict had a cocktail of substances in his system that could have killed someone when he caused the crash that killed former Home And Away star Jessica Falkholt and her family, an inquest has heard.
Ms Falkholt, her sister Annabelle and parents Lars and Vivian died following a brutal collision as they left a family Christmas lunch at Ulladulla on December 26, 2017.
Craig Whitall was driving home from hospital when he veered onto the wrong side of the Princes Highway and slammed headfirst into the vehicle carrying the Falkholts. He also died at the scene.
On Tuesday an inquest into the deaths of the Falkholts and Mr Whitall heard he was “unravelling” in the weeks before he failed to negotiate a bend on the clear, dry highway and caused the fatal crash.
His Toyota Prado crossed onto the wrong side of the road near Bendalong Road at 10.42am and slammed into the Mazda SUV carrying the Falkholts in the opposite direction.
Witnesses described the Prado driving erratically in the lead up to the crash including an attempt to overtake a car towing a caravan.
“Mr Falkholt could not avoid the crash that followed as a result of Mr Whitall failing to negotiate a bend in the road,” Counsel Assisting the Coroner Donna Ward said.
Witnesses said the force of the crash was so great both vehicles raised off the ground and momentarily formed a triangle, the court heard.
The Mazda carrying the Falkholts was thrown from the road while the Prado spun around to face the other direction; moments later both cars burst into flames.
Mr Whitall, 50, Lars, 69, and Vivian, 60, all died at the crash site.
Jessica, 28, and Annabelle Falkholt, 21, were saved from burning to death by the heroic actions of witnesses who managed to remove them from the Mazda’s back seats before the fire started.
Ms Ward said those actions were “one of many small acts of grace and kindness displayed by strangers who happened across the scene”.
The sisters had suffered horrific injuries from which they would ultimately not survive from.
Jessica underwent emergency surgery but could not recover and died on January 17, 2018. Annabelle died in hospital three days after the crash.
The inquest will consider not only the events of the crash but also how the medical treatment and traffic history of Mr Whitall contributed to the cause of the tragic collision.
Ms Ward said Mr Whitall had a “terrible” driving record dating back to 1983, which included convictions for driving unlicensed, being under the influence of alcohol and dangerous driving.
Despite decades of offending behind the wheel, the earliest record of Mr Whitall applying for his learner permit was in 2016, the inquest heard.
Ms Ward said a post mortem found drugs including methylamphetaime – or ‘ice’ – methadone, diazepam and antidepressants in his system after his death.
“Thus, this is a case where the Court is considering the cumulative effect of a range of medications and illicit drugs in circumstances where the highly elevated doxepin concentration found at autopsy was well within the potentially toxic or fatal range as and of itself,” Ms Ward said.
The father had been on a methadone program since 1990 and had visited two separate south coast hospitals on December 25 and 26 respectively to request more methadone.
Ms Ward said Mr Whitall had lied to doctors when he told them he had run out of doses and needed more to get through the Christmas period.
Despite the pleas of the man known as a difficult patient, doctors did not hand over methadone and instead prescribed him diazepam.
On the day of the crash he was given four 5mg tablets of diazepam – or Valium – and told to take one at a time, however, toxicology reports found he must have taken more than one.
An expert said the level of antidepressant doxepin in his system were so high it would have caused him drowsiness and blurred vision and “significant impairment of his motor functions”.
Ms Ward said Mr Whitall’s final act made it easy to lose sight of his significant health problems and what he meant to his loved ones.
“Whatever his failings, Mr Whitall loved his family as best he could and they love and miss him,” she said.
“And it can be all too easy to lose sight of the Falkholt family
“They were innocent and ordinary in that they were just driving home from a Christmas event with extending family in a way all of us are familiar with.”
The inquest continues.
Originally published as Why actress and family died on trip home