Tumble Dryer Death Inquest

12 April 2011, 17:42 | Updated: 30 March 2016, 13:50

The inquest into death of a four year old boy who was found dead inside a tumble dryer in his Derbyshire home has ruled it was an accident.

Sonny Gibson was discovered inside the machine by his mother, Anne, at the family home in Ashbourne on July 26 last year.

At an inquest into his death at Derby Coroner's Court, Mrs Gibson said she returned home that morning after spending the night at a friend's house. She had not intended to stay over, she said, but had had a few too many drinks.

Sonny had been left in the care of teenage family members, which was a common arrangement, but was not in his room when she went upstairs that morning.

She rang the police after around 30 minutes of searching and it was when she was checking the house again with a police officer that she made the discovery.

Mrs Gibson fought back sobs as she told the inquest: ``I don't know what made me look in the washing machine, and then I opened the tumble dryer door and he was there. I opened the door and he was just curled up.''

Mrs Gibson, a care assistant, was arrested on suspicion of child neglect not long after Sonny's death. All charges against her were later dropped.

Anthony Coombs, a scenes of crime officer, said tests were carried out to establish if the tumble dryer door could have shut and the appliance switched on with the youngster inside.

He told the inquest tests were done where an officer pushed the door open so it bounced on its hinge and swung shut, with the door hook latching into place.

He said that, with the timer set, ``five out of six times, the door latch closed and the machine activated.''

Another test using a sandbag mannequin the same size and shape as Sonny's body inside the machine delivered similar results.

Mr Coombs said: ``Five out of six times the machine actively tumbled and it was possible to see that the sand bag physically tumbled round in the machine.''

After one minute and 14 seconds, the belt burned out, he said.

In her evidence to the inquest, Mrs Gibson said she thought she used the dryer the day before Sonny's death but could not remember if she set the timer to zero as she usually would.

She said she thought her son may have climbed into the dryer and the family's two pet dogs may have knocked the door shut.

``I think, it's only in my head, it would have been easy for one of the dogs to have knocked it and it could have shut, but Sonny could have kicked it and it swung shut.''

A teenage family member said he made Sonny an evening meal before putting him to bed around 8.30pm on the night before his body was found.

He put a DVD on in Sonny's room for him, which happened most nights to help him fall asleep, and stayed in until another family member came home around 10.30pm.

He then went to the local park and did not return home until around 12.30am, when he then checked on Sonny one last time at around 1.30am before going to bed.

Asked by the coroner if he remembered locking Sonny's door he said: ``I can't recall locking it when I left him.''

Ms Pinder asked him: ``Do you think it's possible that you didn't, that that's the most likely explanation as to how he got out?''

He answered: ``Yes.''

Delivering her verdict, Ms Pinder said she was satisfied that all measures had been taken by the Gibson family in ensuring Sonny's safety, even if locking him in his room at night was ``an uncomfortable concept'' to some.

In light of that, she said: ``Not locking the door proved, in the end, to be a catastrophic concept but it's difficult to see how anyone could be critical of the fact of not locking the door.''

Ms Pinder also said she was satisfied that care arrangements, in the form of various family members looking after Sonny, were ``traditional but, I think, fairly haphazard''.

Of Mrs Gibson staying out all night, she said evidence had shown that she believed Sonny would be cared for competently, but she added: ``It's not relevant that you, Mrs Gibson, decided to stay out but I've no doubt that the decision to do so will haunt you for a long time to come.''

Ms Pinder said it was impossible to know why Sonny climbed inside the tumble dryer, a Proline TDV60, but she believed he had set the timer himself and then the door either bounced shut as he got in or one of the two dogs knocked it shut.

She recorded a verdict of accidental death and added: ``Sonny was a very lively little boy and could, on occasion, be quite mischievous.

``He loved to hide and hide and seek was a game he was fond of. He had demonstrated an attraction to the tumble dryer in the past.''

She also said she had heard that many tumble dryers had improved safety designs and because Sonny's death was so rare she would not be making any formal recommendations.

She added: ``I hope that manufacturers will continue to look at the safety designs of tumble dryers.''