First prosecution under new corporate manslaughter legislation announced 24/04/2009 - Article from UK safety & Health.
A Cotswolds firm and one of its directors will be the first to be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (CMA), the Crown Prosecution Service has announced.
The CPS has authorised a charge of corporate manslaughter against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, of Birdlip in Gloucestershire, in relation to the death of Alexander Wright on 5 September 2008.
Mr Wright, who was employed by the company as a junior geologist, was taking soil samples from inside a pit, which had been excavated as part of a survey of a site near Stroud, when the sides of the pit collapsed and crushed him.
Peter Eaton, a director of the company has been charged with gross-negligence manslaughter and under section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd has also been charged with a breach of section 33 of the HSWA 1974.
Kate Leonard, reviewing lawyer, CPS Special Crime Division, said the CPS concluded there was “sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction for this offence”. She explained: “Under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 an organisation is guilty of corporate manslaughter if the way in which its activities are managed or organised causes a death and amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care to the person who died. A substantial part of the breach must have been in the way activities were organised by senior management.”
As the first case to be taken under the new Act, which took ten years to come on to the statute book amid much wrangling and debate, it is likely to be watched with interest by employers and legal experts alike.
Steffan Groch, a partner with law firm DWF, who has considerable experience in the defence of health and safety and corporate manslaughter cases, said the real interest will lie in whether or not, and how, the case is defended. He told SHP: “If not-guilty pleas are entered, we might see an exploration of what the terms ‘senior manager’ and ‘falling reasonably short’ actually mean. On the other hand, if a guilty plea is entered, we will still get to learn something, such as how big the fines are likely to be.”
Although the Sentencing Advisory Panel has not yet finalised its guidelines in respect of the Act Groch feels the outcome of this case will be interesting. He said: “The judge will be mindful that this is the first conviction under the Act, and so may apply a larger fine.”
Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings had a turnover of £333,000 last year, according to records filed with Companies House. One of the concerns about the previous corporate manslaughter legislation was that it was difficult to prosecute large firms because of the need to identify a controlling mind. An advantage of the new Act that is consistently highlighted is that this is no longer necessary, thus making prosecution of large firms for corporate manslaughter much easier.
As Groch pointed out, this first prosecution would have been more interesting had it been against a genuinely large firm. He explained: “Let’s assume that the new Act hadn’t come in. In that case, exactly the same thing would have happened: the individual director would have been charged with gross-negligence manslaughter and the company with involuntary manslaughter.”
An area of confusion with the new Act has been the issue of the individual liability, with many being unsure as to whether or not directors and senior managers can still be prosecuted. Under section 18 of the Act there is no secondary liability but this doesn’t prevent a director or senior manager from being prosecuted for gross-negligence manslaughter, or a breach of section 37 of the HSWA 1974, which is what has happened in this case
Peter Eaton will appear at Stroud Magistrates’ Court on 17 June to face charges both as an individual and on behalf of the company.