Corporate Manslaughter: Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd

25 March, 2011

In this note, we review the recent decision against Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Limited, the first company to be convicted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (“the 2007 Act”).

 

The Facts

The prosecution of Cotswold arose out of the death of an employee, Alex Wright, in September 2008. Alex Wright, who was a geologist, died whilst taking soil samples from a 3.5 metre deep trial pit on a building site.

 

Tragically, the walls of the trial pit were not properly supported and collapsed, burying Alex Wright.

 

The prosecution asserted that Cotswold had failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to prevent Alex Wright working in a dangerous way.

 

The jury heard that Cotswold had failed to update and comply with its own risk assessments and had not complied with industry guidance.

 

The 2007 Act

Under section 1 of the 2007 Act a company is guilty of an offence if the management or organisation of its activities causes a person’s death and where the conduct is a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the company to the deceased.

 

The prosecution must also show, under section 1(3), that a substantial element of the breach was in the way that the company’s activities were managed or organised by its senior management.

 

The Outcome

The jury at Winchester Crown Court found Cotswold guilty of breaching the 2007 Act. The Judge, Mr Justice Field, imposed a fine of £385,000 although, due to the company’s parlous financial state, he permitted Cotswold to pay this fine over a 10 year period.

 

In giving his verdict, Mr Justice Field described the gross breach of duty towards Alex Wright as a grave offence and stated that the fine reflected the gravity of the matter. Furthermore, he added that the fine should have a deterrent effect on other companies.

 

Whilst this is the first successful prosecution under the 2007 Act, given the loss of life and the size of the fine imposed, it reiterates the importance of preparing, implementing and reviewing suitable risk assessments.

 

Cotswold was a small company and it will be more difficult for the prosecution to identify a suitable senior manager where a larger company is involved. However, if a successful prosecution is brought against a larger company a significantly larger fine should be expected.

Reviewed in 2015