First corporate manslaughter charge
The prosecution of a Birdlip-based geotechnical company began in June at Stroud Magistrates’ Court, marking a new chapter in English law. It is the first case brought under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 – legislation brought in to make it easier to bring companies to justice if the death of an employee can be attributed to serious managerial failings.
- Peter Eaton and his company, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings, is being jointly charged following the death of one of the firm’s junior geologists. Alexander Wright, 27, was killed while taking soil samples when the sides of the trial pit he was in collapsed. The incident took place in Stroud in September 2008. The landmark charge is brought against Eaton’s company as well as Eaton himself.
- The ‘crime’ of corporate manslaughter was first recognised by the courts as long ago as 1965 but few prosecutions have been brought because of the limitations of the old common law. The principle of ‘identification’ meant that blame had to be pinned on at least one director – which is generally very difficult to prove.
- Under the new law, the offence is committed where an organisation owes a duty to take reasonable care for a person’s safety but the way in which its business has been ‘managed or organised’ amounts to a gross breach of that duty and causes death.
- For a conviction, a ‘substantial element’ of the gross negligence must come from ‘senior management’. Companies convicted of the crime are subject to an unlimited fine, likely to equate to between 2_-10 per cent of annual turnover in the three years before the offence. This is a dramatic increase since most large companies convicted of fatal safety crimes are now fined at a level less than one 700th of annual turnover. Another available penalty is a ‘publicity order’ which forces the company to publicise its conviction and make good the state of affairs that led to the fatality.
- Directors can be also be prosecuted for safety offences alongside a corporate manslaughter prosecution. The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 has widened the range of offences for which prison is a possible punishment.
The Geotechnical Holdings case is to be heard before Bristol Crown Court in August. It may be the first corporate manslaughter prosecution, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Cynics may look at this new legislation as just another device to increase the government coffers. However the threat of such a substantial fine coupled to publicity and with the requirement to address the deficit is certain to focus the collective minds of companies and their directors. And if this is not sufficient the possibility of a director being imprisoned should do the trick.
Too often only lip service has been paid to health and safety procedures; the health and safety manual has been prepared, the risk assessments drafted and the policies set out, only to lack the one thing needed to make them work–commitment. H&S needs to be considered as an ongoing daily necessity, not at a mind-numbing, cotton wool, nanny state level.
“Life is dangerous to your health” should be the motto emblazoned upon every health and safety officer’s forehead and they should think long and hard before imposing absurd standards in everyday activities. It is ironic that, while the much higher legal standards of H&S in the workplace seem not to have been adopted there, they have instead trickled down to H&S in daily life. One can only hope that this prosecution will help the powers that be to refocus their efforts in the workplace and leave Joe Public alone.
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