17 February 2011

Workplace safety: it's criminal

First corporate manslaughter conviction

A company has been convicted of the new offence of corporate manslaughter, arising out of an accident in 2008[1].
Before the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 it was very difficult to prosecute for manslaughter arising out of industrial accidents. It was necessary to prove the personal guilt of an individual director. The new offence is committed if the way the company’s activities are managed or organised causes a death, amounting to gross negligence, to which senior management contributed. 
Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd ignored industry standards and left a junior geologist to work alone in a 3.5m deep trench. Sadly, Alex Wright was killed when the trench collapsed.
Originally, the managing director was also charged with manslaughter, but was unfit to stand trial, and the company was also charged with a health and safety offence. Was the corporate manslaughter offence is unnecessary in the circumstances? The company can expect a heavier fine than for the H&S offence[2], and has the public notoriety of being convicted for manslaughter[3] – perhaps that was the main reason for bringing in the offence, to convict companies of a “real” crime instead of what looked like a technical offence. Still no-one goes to jail.

[2] Sentencing guidelines for corporate manslaughter recommend a fine of over £500,000, that may be in millions; for health and safety offences causing death, of over £100,000. Fines cannot be recovered under insurance.
[3] Which is likely to include court-ordered publicity, eg on the company’s own website.

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