Peninsula Team

February 25 2011

On 15th February Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd became the first company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter under legislation introduced in 2008. The prosecution followed the death of a young geologist who died when a pit collapsed on him. The company was fined £385,000.

Setting the penalty at 116% of the company’s turnover in the year of the incident Mr. Justice Field said that the offence was “grave” and the penalty was intended to hurt. It both “marked the gravity of the offence and the deterrent effect it would have on [other] companies to strongly adhere to health and safety guidance”. He recognised that the company’s finances were in a poor state and “It may well be that the fine in the terms of its payment will put this company into liquidation. If that is the case it’s unfortunate but unavoidable. But it’s a consequence of the serious breach.”

The company had denied the charged but having heard both the prosecution evidence and the defense arguments the jury at Winchester Court decided that the company was guilty. In a week-long trial they heard details of the death of Alexander Wright who died whilst working for Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd. 

Mr. Wright was testing soil in a 2 feet wide, 12 feet 6 inch deep, unsupported pit which collapsed onto him. He died of traumatic asphyxia. It was alleged that the company breached health and safety laws because the pit was not supported.

The jury heard that industry codes of practice from 1981 outlined the danger of workers entering pits deeper than 1.2m due to the risk of injury or death from the pit collapsing. Cotswold Geotechnical's own health and safety document, written by its MD, Peter Eaton, in 1992, also said that timbering or support must be used if the pit depth was greater than 1.2m.

Mr. Eaton had been working with Alexander Wright until he had left the site shortly before the incident. He knew exactly where Alexander was working.

Mr. Eaton was himself indicted for the gross negligence manslaughter of Alexander Wright. But when Mr. Justice Field was told that Mr. Eaton was seriously ill with cancer and has but a few months to live he decided that it would be inappropriate to continue with the case.

Although there was nothing complicated about this case and it has not led to any judicial interpretation of the requirements it is a landmark case. For many years there has been public concern that companies have not been corporately liable for health and safety failings leading to fatalities. Now there is a law and now that it has been used it is likely that the Crown Prosecution Service will be encouraged to bring more cases to court.
Corporate manslaughter charges will stick where the company doesn’t have a comprehensive health and safety management system or where the system itself has not been followed in practice. Peninsula clients are supplied with a health and safety system that follows the Health and Safety Executive guidance HSG 65 ‘Successful Health and Safety Management’. Client’s who utilise the system as a matter of routine and who monitor and manage their health and safety arrangements should have nothing to fear from Corporate Manslaughter.

This is an issue that all businesses should be wary of. For more information on this topic please contact our Advice Line today on 0844 892 2772.

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