THE family of a council labourer killed in an accident at work have criticised the inquest process - and vowed to continue their search for the truth.

Hartlepool Borough Council worker Tony Gate remained in a coma for nearly three years after being struck by a car as he put up signs in West View Road, Hartlepool, in July 2003.

He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury when he fell onto the kerb following the collision.

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Mr Gate, from Hartlepool, died from pneumonia on February 19, 2006, aged 52.

Yesterday, jurors at Darlington County Court spent 30 minutes deliberating over the evidence before returning a verdict of accidental death.

Their decision angered members of Mr Gate's family, who believe they have been let down by the coroner's court system.

Solicitor Andrew McDonald, of Thompsons Solicitors, who is representing Mr Gate's family, said: "We had hoped that the coroner's inquest would have been an opportunity to explore what happened to Tony, but, regrettably, the conflict between fact-finding on the one hand, which is allowed, and apportioning blame on the other, which is not allowed, deprives the inquest process of any real investigative value."

The coroner's court system is under Government review and a revised draft Bill was published in March.

The Bill aims to modernise the service and to provide a better service for the bereaved.

Last night, a Ministry of Justice spokesman defended the ruling. He said: "The inquest process is a fact-finding inquiry to determine who the deceased was, when they died, where they died and the circumstances surrounding their death.

"As stated in Rule 42 of the Coroner's Rules, the purpose of an inquest is not to apportion criminal or civil liability."

Mr McDonald said Mr Gate's family would pursue a civil case against the driver of the vehicle and the council.

He added: "The family lost Tony twice - once at the time of his accident and, after visiting him every single day that he remained in a persistent vegetative state, on his death.

"This has been a most stressful ordeal for all of Tony's extended family and, while this part of the process is concluded, the family remain immensely disappointed at the failure of the coroner's inquest to get to the truth.

"Civil proceedings are under way and we owe it to Tony to continue to try and find out what happened."