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First corporate killing conviction in landmark trial

Company found guilty of corporate manslaughter

Photo: istock

11 February 2011

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings (CGH) was found guilty of corporate manslaughter at Winchester Crown Court on Tuesday 15th February. The first prosecution under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 followed the death of junior geotechnical engineer Alexander Wright who was taking soil samples at a site near Stroud in Gloucester when a test pit collapsed on him in September 2008. The company has been fined £385,000. Guidance issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council last year recommended that the starting point for fines for this offence should be £500,000.

The firm was accused of failing to follow its own safety guidelines, by having an unsupported trial pit over 1.2m deep and allowing an employee to enter it while alone on site. Wright was alone on the site when the 3.8m deep trial pit collapsed suffocating him.

The firm pleaded not guilty to the offence arguing that Wright should have known not to enter the pit as he would have known that it was dangerous and unnecessary.  Defending barrister Richard Lissack QC argued that industry guidance which says that workers should not enter unsupported excavations more than 1.2m deep “gives best advice to a broad sector” rather than dictating a hard rule. Mark Ellison QC, prosecuting, said that CGH failed to enforce its own health and safety rules and disregarded industry standards.

This case clearly demonstrates to engineering firms and construction companies that it is not enough just to have health and safety measures in place, but is vital to enforce, review and audit them.

Death at work and Leigh Day

The personal injury department at Leigh Day & Co has represented many clients who have been injured in workplace accidents. Many of these clients will be hoping to rely on the new act that has recently come into force in the UK. The act is intended to address deaths caused by systems failure, e.g. a prevalent lack of training or supervision and stresses the importance of good safety training and assessment and effective health and safety management in organisations.  A new system of fines under the act means that large corporations could be charged up to 10% of turnover for fatalities caused by poor health and safety systems.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was recently forced to reveal for the first time the names of construction workers killed on building sites, the names of the companies that they worked for and the cause of death.  The HSE was prompted to publish this information by the Information Commission and figures show that more than half of the 72 builders who died last year worked at small companies employing less than 50 people. Small companies do not always have the resources to make safety and training a priority. Ucatt general secretary Alan Ritchie said. "The HSE must introduce a zero-tolerance approach to safety, and pressure needs to be applied all year round on small construction companies. As the law stands, a company boss is more likely to be sent to prison for not paying their taxes than killing one of his workers. It is an appalling state of affairs and sends a terrible message that we as a society consider life to be cheap."

Laing O'Rourke fined £135,000

Sally Moore, head of the personal injury and accidents department at Leigh Day,  represented the widow of steel fixer Kieron Deeney who died in an avoidable accident after falling 40 feet through a hatch cover that was covered only with a piece of plywood fixed by two nails.  The inquest into his death brought a verdict of unlawful killing. Lang O’Rourke, the company running the site, was fined £135,000 on 30 April 2009 after pleading guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act.  At the Old Bailey judge Richard Hone warned the construction company that it must eliminate a “casual attitude to risk” that existed on sites. He said: “The whole company from top to bottom should feel thoroughly ashamed for this needless death.”

Fatal fall from boiler platform

Leigh Day represented the family of a Polish man who died after falling 23m from the platform of an industrial boiler.  The firm was fined and convicted under the Health and Safety Act and the widow of the man received a significant sum of compensation.

Asbestos and mesothelioma claims

Our industrial diseases team, headed by partner Daniel Easton, represents numerous families whose loved ones have died after contracting mesothelioma, an aggressive form of lung cancer that is fatal and is only caused by to exposure to asbestos.  Our specialist asbestos lawyers are experts in dealing with fast-track claims for compensation for people who have worked in industries such as plumbing, heating, boiler making or insulation who are sadly much more likely than the general population to have been exposed to asbestos in the past.  Sometimes exposure to asbestos from as long ago as 30 years can trigger off mesothelioma.

Leigh Day & Co hopes that workers in all dangerous occupations, especially in the construction, off-shore and agriculture industries, will continue to be protected by existing legislation and that managers responsible for protecting the health of their workers will take note of the most recent act that joins and strengthens the canon of health and safety law.
Daniel Easton, a partner in the personal injury department said:

“It is imperative that the government continues to keep in place strong health and safety regulation to prevent disastrous preventable accidents, such as this, from occurring.  Whilst it is encouraging that a prosecution has been successfully brought, the government and CPS must now build on this precedent to ensure that future negligence does not go unpunished.
The reality is that health and safety legislation is to ensuring a safe community, including safety in the workplace, at schools, in hospitals etc.  Despite protective legislation, health and safety rules are flouted every day and it is imperative that the Government maintains the progress that has been made over the past few decades which has resulted in a vast reduction in the number of accidents and deaths at work.  This case is a prime example of the need for protective legislation and the fact there must be accountability of the companies who flout it.” 

If you would like to talk to one of our solicitors about a possible claim for compensation following an accident at work please email Sally Moore or Daniel Easton or call on 020 7650 1200 for a free initial consultation.

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