A UK waste management company, Sterecycle (Rotherham) Ltd, has become the eighth company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. 

The Court imposed a fine of £500,000, the highest fine imposed for a corporate manslaughter conviction to date, although the Sentencing Guidelines published in February 2010 (the Guidelines) advised that the fine for corporate manslaughter should "seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds." As the company is in liquidation, it is unlikely to be able to pay the majority of the fine. 

Facts

On 11 January 2011, Michael Whinfrey, an autoclave operator, sustained fatal head injuries when the steel door of the autoclave exploded. It transpired that there were a series of mechanical problems with the door, its locking ring, and its seal, in the months before the accident.

Decision

The UK Crown Court found that Mr Whinfrey died “as a result of systemic failings” in the way the company managed and operated the autoclave. The judge believed that the majority of the blame must be borne at senior management level, i.e. “those at the higher end of the management tree, the true or supposed brains of the company”.

The jury found the company's maintenance manager not guilty of perverting the course of justice. The Prosecution dropped health and safety charges against the maintenance manager, the operations manager and operations director during the trial.

The judge said that the company had "cut corners to save money" and "keep production going". The Judge imposed a fine of £500,000 on the company, despite the unlikelihood of it being paid, on the grounds that it would "serve to mark society's condemnation" of the company's behaviour and to "act as a deterrent to others".

Comment

On 13 November 2014, the Sentencing Council for England and Wales published for consultation draft Sentencing Guidelines for corporate manslaughter and health and safety offences. The draft guidelines propose to tie the level of fines to corporate turnover. If these Guidelines are adopted, the UK courts will have to undertake a greater scrutiny of company accounts and financial performance, in order to determine the appropriate fine.

There is no Irish equivalent to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, despite the Irish Law Reform Commission reporting on the need for criminal liability in the area of corporate manslaughter back in 2005.

The maximum penalties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2005 are €3 million and/or 2 years’ imprisonment per offence, tried on indictment.  However, typically fines are between €20,000 and €100,000 even for fatalities. The highest Irish health and safety fine to date is €2million, which was imposed on Bus Eireann in 2008, following the Kentstown Bus crash in which five schoolgirls who were passengers on the bus were killed.

Managers and directors can also be made personally liable and proceeded against directly for failures. If a company is found guilty of an offence, there is a presumption that directors and managers are also guilty unless they can prove otherwise. There has been little consistency in sentencing in fatal accident prosecutions, leading to calls for guidelines on sentencing to be introduced.

In general, however, courts will look at the level of culpability (including for example whether risks were taken to save money, or whether there were previous incidents or "near misses" which were not addressed), the means of the offender, and conduct both before and after the incident (for example whether measures have been introduced to prevent a recurrence).