Geologist death leads to first corporate manslaughter charge

In what is believed to be the first prosecution under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings (CGH) has been charged with corporate manslaughter in relation to the death of Alexander Wright on 5 September 2008.

Wright, 27, who was employed by CGH as a junior geologist, was taking soil samples from inside a pit which had been excavated as part of a site survey when the sides collapsed, crushing him.

CGH director Peter Eaton has been charged with gross negligence, manslaughter and an offence contrary to Section 37, Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. CGH has also been charged with failing to discharge a duty contrary to section 33, Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Kate Leonard, reviewing lawyer, CPS Special Crime Division, explained: “Under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, an organisation is guilty of corporate manslaughter if the way in which its activities are managed or organised causes a death and amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care to the person who died. A substantial part of the breach must have been in the way activities were organised by senior management. I have concluded that there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction for this offence.”

Eaton will appear at Stroud Magistrates’ Court on 17 June. He faces charges both as an individual and on behalf of the company.

Commenting on the case, Ian Mayers, who specialises in corporate manslaughter and is a partner at law firm Mills & Reeve LLP, said: “This will be a very interesting case as it will be the first where the old law and new law will be used together against both a company and an individual. This situation is more likely to happen where the company is quite small and the director is only one of a small number and where he/she has a fair bit of control over the particular activity which was the cause of the death.

“If convicted, the company would face a massive financial penalty and a publicity order which could force them to widely publicise their conviction. The starting point for the fine will be 5% of the gross annual turnover of the business, but it could end up being as much as 10%. This would have an adverse effect on the company and its employees.

“It is also interesting to note that the director faces imprisonment,” he adds. “The maximum sentence for gross negligence manslaughter is life, but even if he escapes conviction for this most serious offence he could still face imprisonment for the offence under section 37 of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc Act, which could mean a maximum of two years under a recent amendment which just came into force in January 2009.

“The director may have a legal defence to the manslaughter charge brought against him personally, but this may all depend upon his level of control over the business and, in particular, his control over the particular activity which led to the death.”

Comments are closed.