A mobile crane hire company has become the first company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter where a company driver was killed. The level of fine imposed is another reminder of the increasing force with which the courts will continue to impose penalties when the new Sentencing Guidelines are enforced.

The facts and investigation

On 22 December 2015, Baldwins Crane Hire Ltd was fined £700,000 and also ordered to pay £200,000 in costs at Preston Crown Court.  The conviction follows the death in August 2011 of Lindsay Easton, employed by the company as a crane operator.  Mr Easton was driving a 16-wheel, 130-tonne crane down a steep road away from a wind farm in Lancashire, when the vehicle crashed into an earth bank and fell from the road.  The vehicle brakes were found to have failed and Mr Easton was killed when the front of the vehicle crashed into an earth bank. 

The investigation into the incident, conducted by Lancashire Police and the Health and Safety Executive, found that:

  • Several of the brakes in the vehicle were inoperable, worn and contaminated, therefore providing very limited braking force.
  • Brakes inspected across the company’s fleet had significant issues requiring immediate repair.
  • Mr Easton was not using his usual vehicle as he had replaced another operator.
  • There were significant failings within the structure of the company, such as a lack of supervision and oversight of expenditure needed on repairs and parts in the pursuit of profit-making.

Sentencing under the current regime

Under the current Sentencing Guidelines, fines for such offences should be punitive, sufficient to have an impact on the defendant and should “seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds”.  Taken out of context, the fine of £700,000 imposed on Baldwins Crane Hire was not as great as it could have been, especially given that it is a medium-sized organisation with a turnover of just under £20 million.  However, it is, to date, the highest fine to be imposed on a company for a corporate manslaughter conviction, confirming the upward trend for such sentences, as the recently revised Sentencing Council Guidelines are about to come into force next month. 

Sentencing post-1 February 2016?

Under the new guidelines, the starting point for a fine by a company of a similar size to Baldwins Crane Hire for the offence of corporate manslaughter would be £3 million, which could go up to as much as £7.5 million, if adjusted for aggravating features.

In this particular case, aggravating features included the previous conviction of Baldwins Industrial Services (the previous incarnation of Baldwins Crane Hire, which fell into administration in 2002, but was later re-established as Baldwins Crane Hire Ltd) in 1994 for issuing false crane test certificates and hiring out untested cranes, for which it was fined £70,000.  Such a previous conviction relating to breaches of health and safety law, albeit over 20 years ago, would be a statutory aggravating factor for the court to take into account under the new Sentencing Guidelines. In determining any upward adjustment to the sentencing starting point, other aggravating factors would also be considered by the court, such as cost-cutting at the expense of safety and the company’s poor health and safety record in relation to both other employees and road users.

Conclusion

In practical terms, the case highlights the importance of companies regularly inspecting and maintaining all equipment, machinery and vehicles used during the course of employment, in order to demonstrate that employers have regard for the safety of employees and non-employees.  Legally, it once again reminds employers and senior managers of the appetite the Crown Prosecution Service has to pursue more corporate manslaughter cases, with tougher penalties being meted out for all levels of culpability in relation to corporate manslaughter and health and safety offences under the new Sentencing Guidelines.