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Defendant’s illness holds up corporate killing trial

A judge last week adjourned the first case to be tried under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 until October because the director of the company charged needs “urgent and intensive” medical attention.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings is charged with corporate manslaughter.

The firm’s director Peter Eaton is charged with unlawful killing through gross negligence.

Both are being prosecuted following the death of junior geologist and employee Alexander Wright, 27, who died in a trench collapse at Stroud, Gloucestershire in September 2008.

Eaton faces charges as an individual and on behalf of the company and could face life imprisonment if found guilty.
His company could face an unlimited fine.

The trial had been due to start last Tuesday, but Eaton’s defence counsel Tim Horlock secured a three day adjournment on “medical grounds”.

“It would be unfair and oppressive for Eaton to participate in the trial at this time”

Judge Justice Field

Eaton underwent a further medical assessment last Thursday evening and was judged to be unwell. The nature of his illness was not disclosed, but the court heard on Friday that he would need 18 weeks of treatment.

The prosecution and defence counsels agreed to adjourn the trial until Eaton was fit.

Judge Justice Field told the jury that he had acceded to the defence’s application to adjourn this trial “for a longish period because the defendant requires urgent and intensive medical treatment”. Field ruled it would be “unfair and oppressive” for him to have to participate in the trial during this time.

Cotswold Geotechnical is the first company to be charged under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007. The new law aims to hold organisations to account if a workplace death can be attributed to serious managerial failures.

Prior to the Act a company could only be convicted of manslaughter if a “controlling mind” managing the company was judged to be personally liable for a death. Now a firm can be found guilty if “the way in which its activities are managed or organised amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care to the deceased”.

A pre-trial review is now scheduled for July so Eaton’s condition can be assessed.

Making the punishment fit the crime

NCE Risk Survey 2010

Lawyers insist that smaller companies will not be disproportionately punished under the new sentencing guidelines for corporate manslaughter.

The new guidelines, published before the start of the Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings trial, state that fines for firms guilty of corporate manslaughter “may be millions of pounds and should seldom be below £500,000”.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings annual turnover was just £300,000 in 2007 according to the Geotechnical Services File 2008 published by NCE’s sister magazine Ground Engineering.

“The legislation is not particularly well written for smaller companies”, said Pinsent Masons health and safety defence partner Simon Joyston-Bechal.

“Despite this guidance looking overly punitive for smaller companies, one of the features of sentencing rules is that the financial means of the offender is taken into account”.

Norton Rose health and safety consultant David Beckenham agreed. “The current case will not give much new information regarding fines.

“The terminology in the new law is vague and leaves a lot to interpretation, but one of the things that must be considered is the employment of innocent parties.

“Only in exceptional cases will the judge impose a fine that will put the future of the company in jeopardy.”

The guidelines also recommend that companies be ordered to publicise their corporate manslaughter convictions. This order came into effect on 15 February so would not apply to Cotswold Geotechnical if convicted.

Convicted companies will be forced to tell shareholders and customers the details of cases, fines imposed and remedial work they are ordered to do.

  • NCE is carrying out a survey of the construction industry’s attitude to managing risk in the light of new legislation including the Corporate Manslaughter Act and the new Bribery Act. Take part at www.nce.co.uk/risksurvey

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