First corporate manslaughter conviction

At Winchester Crown Court yesterday, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings became the first company to be convicted of the offence of corporate manslaughter under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

The conviction by jury follows a lengthy trial into the death of Alex Wright, a young geologist employed by the company, on 5 September 2008. Mr Wright is believed to have died whilst investigating soil conditions in a deep trench, which collapsed and killed him.

The case against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings was directed at the company’s failure to protect the young geologist from working in dangerous conditions such as the trench. In convicting the company, the jury found that the system of digging trial pits was unnecessarily dangerous and that in doing so, the company was ignoring well-recognised industry guidance in this area. To prove the offence, the Crown had to establish that the way in which its activities were managed or organised by its senior management formed a substantial element of the breach. In addition there had to be a gross breach of the relevant duty of care by the company charged with the offence i.e. the breach had to fall well below the standard that would normally be expected of it.

The case itself has suffered a number of delays due to concerns regarding the company director, Peter Eaton’s health. He was originally charged with gross negligence manslaughter but a judge has ruled that he is too unwell to stand trial.

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 came into force on 6 April 2008 and was heralded as new era of corporate accountability for health and safety offences in the wake of a number of high profile health and safety incidents such as the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster, Hatfield rail crash and the Transco explosion in Larkhall. Since its coming into force, there has been much speculation about how the first prosecution for the offence of corporate manslaughter would arise and what type of company and what industry might be involved.

Commentators have expressed disappointment that this first corporate manslaughter case concerned such a (relatively) small organisation. At the time of the incident, Geotechnical employed only 8 people and it has been suggested that it does not have the size or status of the type of corporate entity that the new legislation was expected to capture. Nonetheless, it provides a useful and welcome insight into the first application of the legislation. The company will be sentenced tomorrow and we will report further on the case.

This article first appeared in Law-Now, CMS Cameron McKenna's free online information service, and has been reproduced with their permission. For more information about Law-Now, please go to www.law-now.com