Corporate Manslaughter and Cotswold Geotech: What next?

The case against of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings recently came to a conclusion and has caused much comment in the press and within the health and safety industry but most people are  still asking what can be learned and how important the outcome was for Directors and business owners.  It is know that the company had some serious failing in the way in which it managed risk and its working practices did not go far enough resulting in the death of a 27 year old worker and a fine of £385,000.

The Corporate Homicide Act was first and foremost a response to major accidents involving large corporations, examples being the Hatfield Train Crash and the Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster. Under the Act companies can be found guilty of a gross failure that leads to a persons death regardless of whether a Director or Manager within the business can be held liable.  Up until this point prosecutors had to identify the ‘controlling mind’ who was responsible meaning that large companies could, conceivably, hide behind their many layers of management and be protected, to some extent, from the full force of the law.

The question relating to Peter Eatons company (Costwold Geotechnical Holdings) is was this a true and appropriate test of the law?  It would seem that within a small business employing just four people and with only one Director the prosecutors would have a fairly easy job identifying a ‘controlling mind’.  If it was not the Managing Director then who else could it be?

Existing legislation already allowed for prosecution in this case and cases could already be brought against individual Directors.  The personal charges against Peter Eaton were dropped but the Corporate Manslaughter case continued, perhaps pushed on by the weight of the many cases waiting to be heard after this test of the law.

It would seem that the outcome is mixed; the case was not a good test of the law, the business being too small and the controlling mind too easily identifiable.  It’s a case which could have been dealt with under existing provisions.  The true test of the legislation will only come with another large corporation having a serious accident, only then will we see if the legislation is capable of holding the largest of corporations to account.

In the meantime perhaps an easier solution to the whole matter would be to simply require large corporations to name a Senior individual as responsible for safety, although who would want such a title remains a matter for debate.

If you’ve got questions or need support on safety in the industrial, contracting or construction sectors please contact us for sensible and proportionate advice on 01453 800100

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Firm fined £385,000 in first ever Corporate Manslaughter case

The first company to stand trial under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, has been fined £385,000 after being found guilty by the jury at Winchester Crown Court.

Paul Verrico, a solicitor-advocate with Eversheds, said the case is unlikely to be a landmark in terms of a test of the new law, but believes the conviction “will doubtless be hailed by both the CPS and the HSE as a success (and adding that the physical stress of the process will not have been lost on those holding senior positions).

He also said: “It is well documented that the managing director (Peter Eaton) has been very ill, in no small part due to the stress of being charged with manslaughter in his own right and the undoubted impact on his business.

Helen Devery, a partner at Berrymans Lace Mawer LLP, said: “The size of the fine is intended to make a significant impact on any organisation and, while Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings may have had a modest turnover, larger and more profitable organisations, successfully convicted, can expect fines well above the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s £500,000 starting point.”

The family of the Alex Wright, the employee who tragically died, revealed their relief that “justice has been done” but stressed that, having visited the trench site, they couldn’t believe that “any employer of good integrity or sound intentions would allow or expect any employee to commit themselves to such a danger”.

Cotswold Geotech convicted of first corporate manslaughter charge under new Act

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings has today become the first company to be convicted of the new offence of corporate manslaughter.

The case concerns the death of Alex Wright, just 27-years-old when he died on 5 September 2008.  He was a geologist for Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings and was investigating soil conditions in a deep trench on a development plot in Stroud when it collapsed and killed him.

Kate Leonard, reviewing lawyer from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) Special Crime Division, said:

“Alex Wright was a young man, full of promise. His death is a tragedy for all those who loved him and would never have happened if Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings had properly protected him. I hope that this conviction offers his family some sense of justice. I send them my sincere condolences once again.”

The CPS told the court that Mr Wright was left working alone in the 3.5 metre-deep trench to ‘finish-up’ when the company director left for the day. The two people who owned the development plot decided to stay at the site as they knew Mr Wright was working alone in the trench.  About 15 minutes later they heard a muffled noise and then a shout for help.

While one of the plot-owners called the emergency services, the other one ran to the trench where he saw that a surge of soil had fallen in and buried Mr Wright up to his head. He climbed into the trench and removed some of the soil to enable Mr Wright to breathe.  At that point, more earth fell so quickly into the pit that it covered Mr Wright completely and, despite the plot owners best efforts, Mr Wright died of traumatic asphyxiation.

The prosecution’s case was that Mr Wright was working in a dangerous trench because Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings’ systems had failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect him from working in that way. In convicting the company, the jury found that their system of work in digging trial pits was wholly and unnecessarily dangerous.  The company was found to have ignored recognised industry guidance that prohibits entry into excavations or trial pits more than 1.2 metres deep without shoring, trial pits are typically 2 – 3.5 metres deep.  A point of note is that the company policy document in use was last updated in 1992 and did not include information rleating to trail pits, just excavations but it did state that shoring should be used on any excavation over 1.2 metres.  Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd denies the corporate manslaughter of Mr Wright.

There was no person in the dock at Winchester Crown Court during the three-week trial as it is the company, rather than an individual, which is charged with corporate manslaughter (In October personal charges brought against Peter Eaton (MD) were permanently stayed “unjust and oppressive for proceedings to continue” thought to be related directly to the seriously ill health of Mr Eaton).

The case was investigated by Gloucestershire Constabulary and supported by the Health and Safety Executive.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings will be sentenced on Thursday 17 February 2011.