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Boss 'astonished' man went into pit

A businessman employing a geologist who died in a pit when it collapsed in on him said he was “astonished” his employee had gone down into it, a court heard yesterday.

Peter Eaton, who was the director of Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd, said in a statement read out in court that “intrusive work” had ended for the day and he had made this clear to Alexander Wright.

Wright, 27, was alone in the 3.8m deep unsupported trail pit when it caved in at a development site in Brimscombe Lane, near Stroud, Gloucs, in September 2008.

In the statement, Eaton said no one should ever enter a pit without someone being present above ground and that Wright, who he described as competent and experienced and “not fresh from university”, knew this.

He described how one pit had collapsed on the site that day during the work and he had said to Wright: “That’s it. Enough is enough. All intrusive work is over for the day.”

“There was absolutely no need for Alex to go into trial pit five. I do not know why he did what he did,” he said.

“There is no way he would have thought I would have expected him to re-enter the pit. I was astonished that Alex was in any of the trial pits.”

Eaton said that Wright was being groomed by him for a senior position in the company and he was fond of him.

He said that as he left the site minutes before the death he had shouted to Alex, who was crouched over a pit, that he was going back to the office and his assistant had given “the thumbs up” and that was the last time he saw him alive.

Just seconds after returning to the office, a phone call told him of the accident and he went back to the site to be told by a policeman Wright was dead.

“I was numb with shock. I did not know what to do,” he said in the statement.

Married father-of-four Eaton’s statement was read out at the start of the defence case.

Earlier the jury heard that Eaton had inspected 7,000 pits during his career and Mr Wright 600 to 700, and that they used their judgment to see whether a pit was safe to enter.

Eaton said it was impractical to support trial pits because of time and cost and because it hid what they wanted to look at.

But Mark Ellison QC, prosecuting, said that industry codes of practice dating back to 1981 described the dangers of workers entering pits deeper than 1.2m because of the walls of the pit collapsing.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings’ own health and safety document, written by Eaton in 1992, also said that timbering or support must be used if the depth was greater than 1.2m, the jury heard.

Ellison said that, in police interview, Eaton told officers he had not adapted his working methods since he started in the 1970s even though long experience had shown that such “trial pits” were known to suddenly collapse.

Ellison told the jury: “Your decision as to whether the case against the company is made out will turn essentially upon your assessment of the conduct of Peter Eaton as sole director and manager of the company’s affairs.

“The Crown allege that the substantial cause of Alex Wright’s death was the failure of the company to manage its affairs so as to comply with its legal duty to ensure that Alex Wright’s health was not put at risk at work and that it was a serious or gross failure on the company’s part.”

Eaton, 61, is seriously ill and unable to stand trial or give evidence, the jury at Winchester Crown Court was told.

No one is in the dock for the trial but Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd, denies the corporate manslaughter of Mr Wright. The prosecution is the first under the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

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