A £385,000 fine imposed on the first firm to be convicted under the new Corporate Manslaughter law should act as a clear warning to the construction industry of the perils of breaching health and safety regulations.
‘Relatively lenient’ fine
Justice Field said that while the fine against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings (CGH) was relatively lenient −sentencing guidelines suggested a minimum fine of £500,000 − it could put the firm into liquidation. It is to be paid in 10, yearly instalments.
Field said it would be “unfortunate” but “unavoidable” as it was a consequence of “this serious breach of duty”.
The firm was found guilty of causing the death of junior geotechnical engineer Alexander Wright on 5 September 2008 when a 3.8m deep trial pit collapsed on him − a danger that Field told the court was “plainly foreseeable”.
ICE guidance and British Standards say unsupported pits deeper than 1.2m should never be entered.
“[CGH director] Peter Eaton thought he knew better than the long-established guidance,” said Field. “In this he was gravely and culpably mistaken.
“Peter Eaton thought he knew better than the long-established guidance. In this he was gravely and culpably mistaken”
“It set a lamentable example for young geologists like Wright.” He said Eaton had also failed to heed a warning given to him by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2005, or to act on his pledge to the HSE to improve his way of working.
“That assurance was never honoured,” said Field. “He continued in the same way.”
Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) chair John Carpenter said engineering firms should take the case as a warning, and should establish regular health and safety audits to ensure their policies are vigorous and up to date.
Small companies affected
Legal firm Davies Arnold Cooper partner Fiona Gill said small companies should think about how a serious
accident could affect their business. “Clearly, a conviction under the Corporate Manslaughter Act  could threaten the future of small companies,” she said.
Small contractor Admor Civil Engineering managing director Peter Little said that he feels compelled to be
rigorous on health and safety because it seems to be easier to bring corporate manslaughter cases against small companies, adding that he expects to see many similar cases in future.
CGH’s conviction proves the weight of industry guidelines, said small contractor Colin Briscoe Construction support services manager David Evans. “If there’s guidance, you have to follow it whether you like it or not.”
Upcoming prosecutions ‘likely’
A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service told NCE it has a number of possible corporate manslaughter cases under consideration and is likely to bring charges against some of those companies in the near future.
The spokesman was unable to confirm whether any of the cases under consideration involve engineering or construction companies, but Gill said it is likely that they do.
“I’m sure that [health and safety] standards vary widely,” said Gill. “What they really will be looking for is a larger company [than CGH].
“The court is clearly keen to impose big fines in these cases − possibly to put down a marker to demonstrate the power of the Act.”