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Guilty: Geoconsult, NATM consultant

The specialist consultant feels appeal is the only course of action.

Austrian tunnelling consultant Geoconsult feels it has no choice but to appeal against the massive £500,000 fine and £100,000 costs bill it received after being found guilty of failing to ensure the safety of its employees and others during the 1994 collapse of three tunnels under Heathrow's central terminal area.

'We have to appeal against the verdict,' said Geoconsult chairman Professor Johann Golser, who believed the jury could not have understood the complex engineering issues put to the court. 'We believe we have done things correctly. It has been shown from the length of the trial it is a complicated matter. What else can we do for the survival of the company?'

The court had been told that Geoconsult faced a 'severe liquidity crisis' because of late payments by clients on the Rome Metro and a sewer project in Trieste. It told the court that in 1997 the company made a loss of around £200,000 on a turnover of £7M. The judge said he had taken that into consideration when he gave Geoconsult two and a half years to pay the fine.

Geoconsult was subcontracted to main contractor Balfour Beatty to provide design, supervision and monotoring of tunnelling work carried out using the New Austrian Tunnelling Method. Central to the Austrian firm's duties was monitoring surface settlements and convergence movements in the sprayed concrete tunnel lining.

The Health & Safety Executive alleged that poor workmanship on a joint in the centre concourse tunnel triggered the collapse. It accused Geoconsult of endangering its workers and others by failing to respond to evidence from its monitoring instruments that, it said, suggested a collapse was likely weeks before it happened.

Geoconsult pleaded not guilty and called German tunnelling expert Professor Reinhard Rokahr as an expert defence witness. He told the court that the failed invert alone could not have caused the collapse and that a large scale landslide above the tunnels was the true cause.

In mitigation for Geoconsult, defence advocate Arthur Marriott QC said that if the court's decision was right then Geoconsult was sorry. But he argued that the company was not guilty of trying to cut corners to save costs. 'Lets assume a monitoring judgement error was made,' Marriott said to the court. 'This was an error of professional judgement made by professionals. It was not motivated by commercial motive.'

He said that in tunnelling, engineers relied on engineering judgement and experience backed with technical data and calculations. He claimed that if anything Geoconsult was guilty of no more than an error in professional judgement.

'If Geoconsult made errors then please take account of the managerial and organisational structure,' said the lawyer. 'BAA, HEX, Mott MacDonald, London Underground, [LU's consultant] Haswell, Balfour Beatty had the same data. If Geoconsult was guilty of making a mistake in interpreting the data then it was not the only one to make that mistake. Nobody saw in October that there was a problem with what the monitoring data was showing,' he said. 'On the morning of the collapse nobody raises at the meeting the question of repairs and data.'

Marriott referred to an HSE witness statement read out to the court from Mott MacDonald engineer Robert Gee, who was engineering and design manager for the BAA HEX team. It said: 'The convergence data was generally difficult to interpret. Points jumped up and down which was clearly not happening. We did not spot the lead up to the collapse in October 1994.'


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