Michelmores' clinical negligence team provide a link to the Totalinvestor online article.
On 15 February 2011, a jury at Winchester Crown Court found Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Limited guilty of corporate manslaughter in the first conviction secured under the Act. Two days later, in sentencing, the Court fined Cotswold £385,000.
The case was brought against Cotswold following the death of one of its employees, Alexander Wright, in 2008. Mr Wright was undertaking an investigation into ground conditions at the bottom of a 3.8m trench on a building site. Apparently the walls of the trench were not supported and, unfortunately, one wall collapsed burying and thereby suffocating Mr Wright.
The prosecution successfully claimed that Cotswold's systems were substantially defective in that they had failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect their employee from an unsafe system of work. The Court heard that it was well recognised within the building industry that persons should not enter excavations which were deeper than 1.2m unless the excavations were properly supportive.
The prosecution was based on Section 1 of the Act and, in finding Cotswold guilty, the jury were satisfied that:-
1. Cotswold's conduct caused Mr Wright's death and amounted to a gross breach of their duty of care to him, and
2. a substantial reason for this was the way in which Cotswold's management managed or organised its activities.
When the Act was passed most commentators felt that the Act was principally aimed at larger organisations. The Act was, to an extent, a reaction to large scale railway disasters and the like. However, Cotswold is not a large business and, indeed, had just one director. Consequently the Cotswold case shows that no business can ignore the duty of care that it owes to its employees. It also demonstrates that all businesses (whether large or small) need to concentrate on establishing a health and safety culture which is taken seriously by all within its organisation.
No doubt the Cotswold case will not be the last of its kind and it remains to be seen what level of fine we start to see when larger organisations are prosecuted under the Act. Sentencing guidelines indicate that fines should start at £500,000 for corporate manslaughter and it is only the fact that Cotswold was such a small company that prevented the fine being higher.
As an aside, an additional prosecution for manslaughter was brought against the sole director, Peter Eaton, but the judge declared that he was too ill to stand trial and so only Cotswold have been prosecuted to date.
We all chuckle from time to time about "health and safety" being "red tape, bureaucracy gone mad etc" but this case is a timely reminder to all owners, directors and senior managers that they need to continue to be wary of the employer's duty of care to its employees and others and, indeed, their own personal exposure to prosecution for manslaughter where death results from a failure to have in place a robust health and safety policy, which, in turn, is adhered to.
Categories: Personal injury