Manslaughter charges against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings director Peter Eaton were this week dropped after a judge ruled he was too unwell to be tried.
A hearing in December will determine whether corporate manslaughter charges against Eaton’s firm will also be dropped.
Eaton was 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 was facing a charge of unlawful killing through gross negligence and could have faced life imprisonment if found guilty.
He could still appear in court, however, as his firm is facing corporate manslaughter charges.Last week judge Justice Field ordered that the prosecution against Eaton be permanently stayed after an application from his defence based on his poor health.The trial had already been adjourned since February because of Eaton’s illness (NCE 4 March).
The corporate manslaughter trial is set to continue in January. It will be the first to use the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 and the firm is facing an unlimited fine if found guilty.
However, the firm’s lawyer Pinsent Masons is pressing for the corporate manslaughter case to be dropped too.
“The issue is whether he is fit even to give evidence. And if he can’t give evidence, whether the company can be fairly tried,” explained Pinsent Masons partner Simon Joyston-Bechal.
“We’ll be arguing about that at a hearing in December.”
Lawyers have repeatedly questioned the choice of this case to test out the new corporate manslaughter law. Under previous legislation prosecutors would usually attempt to prove this by securing a manslaughter conviction against an individual within a company. 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” without the need to prosecute an individual as well.
“Given that we have changed the law, should there be this complete focus on individuals?”
Ann Metherall, Burges Salmon
Despite this, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) still decided to pursue a case against Eaton as an individual.
“Cases like this put a tremendous strain on the defendant,” said Joyston-Bechal. “Under the old law, prosecutors had to try and prosecute directors to get charges to stick against the company, as you needed to identify a controlling mind. “In the new law, you might say you don’t need to do that, unless prosecutors are being vindictive. You could just go after the company.”
Burges Salmon partner Ann Metherall agreed. “Given that we have changed the law, should there be this complete focus on individuals?” she asked. “There will always be circumstances where individuals act negligently and it must be possible to hold them to account. But it is quite another matter when the prosecution goes after individuals for no apparent reason,” she said.
With new legislation having now eliminated the need to identify a controlling mind, Metherall said the Cotswold accident was a “bizarre choice” for a test case. Costwold Geotechnical employed eight people and had a turnover of £350,000, according to its entry in the 2008 Geotechnical Services File published by NCE’s sister magazine Ground Engineering.
“Cotswold is a tiny company, and just not the sort of company the new Act was designed to catch. It was designed for the sort of corporate organisation where there is no one individual to blame.” Corporate manslaughter legislation was changed in the aftermath of the Hatfield rail disaster, which claimed four lives 10 years ago this week.
The CPS brought manslaughter charges against five engineers from rail operator Railtrack and maintenance contractor Balfour Beatty. But after an eight month trial all charges against the individuals were thrown out, along with corporate manslaughter charges against Network Rail and Balfour Beatty.
It was widely agreed that in complex cases such as Hatfield it was too difficult to find a controlling mind.
“Put in military terms, you see in this court five lieutenants accused of losing the entire war,” defence barrister Jonathan
Goldberg QC told the jury at the time, “these five infantrymen are court martialled, but the civil servants, the politicians, the men with knighthoods who created the dysfunctional system go scot-free,” he said.