A pensioner accused of causing a car crash that killed a baby in a pram was suffering from undiagnosed dementia, and this was worsening during the pandemic when there were fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact, a court heard.
Shelagh Robertson, 75, was driving home from a shopping trip to Tesco when she turned into the path of an oncoming van on the A10 at Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, forcing it on to the pavement on January 22 last year, Cambridge Crown Court heard.
The van hit Rachael Thorold and her five-month-old son Louis Thorold, killing baby Louis and throwing Mrs Thorold into the air, causing her serious injuries.
Robertson, of Stables Yard, Waterbeach, denies causing the infant’s death by careless driving and is on trial.
Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive of behavioural neurology at the University of Exeter, was instructed by defence lawyers to compile a report on Robertson.
He told jurors that the defendant had “dementia caused most probably by Alzheimer’s disease in a slightly atypical presentation”.
Prof Zeman said Robertson would have been at “high risk of becoming confused at that junction and one possible outcome of the confusion would be to look the wrong way”.
“It’s a difficult junction for the average healthy driver,” he said.
Prof Zeman said that “some forms of dementia are diagnosed relatively late as the features are rather subtle”.
“The time her problems were getting more severe coincided with the pandemic so there would have been fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact than there normally would be,” he said.
The expert witness added that Robertson had “few close relatives” and her husband was “severely unwell”, which was significant as “it’s often the spouses who bring you along” to a dementia clinic.
Jurors were shown an MRI scan of the defendant’s brain, and Prof Zeman said it showed “shrinkage” of a part of the brain associated with memory and language.
He said that if he saw someone at his dementia clinic with the “difficulties” he saw in Robertson he would “advise them immediately not to drive”.
Prof Zeman said that language difficulties observed “more subtly” in Robertson by her friend Angela Brown in around 2016 to 2017 may have represented the beginnings of her dementia.
Former teacher Ms Brown, who said she has known Robertson since around 2010, told the court that she was last driven by the defendant in around the winter of 2018.
She recalled the occasion in 2018 when she was a passenger in Robertson’s car, and Robertson approached a junction on the A10 and “seemed uncertain of how to proceed”.
“I began to feel unsafe and wondered if something was the matter,” she said.
Ms Brown said she also noticed that Robertson had begun to have difficulty with sewing and knitting.
James Leonard, defending, said Robertson will not be called to give evidence.
The trial, due to last less than a week, continues.