An Italian court has sentenced the chief executive officer (CEO) of a company to 16 years' imprisonment for an offence related to the deaths of seven employees. This is the first such case in Italy in which a CEO has been found guilty of homicide, rather than manslaughter. The court found the company liable under Law 231/2001 and ordered it to pay a fine of €1 million. In addition, it confiscated a further €800,000 and banned the company from receiving public funds for six months.

The case concerned an incident at a factory operated by the company ThyssenKrupp. On the night of December 6 2007 a fire broke out on the production line and could not be extinguished because of a lack of fire extinguishers and the absence of other safety features. Seven workers were killed.

At trial, the prosecutor claimed that ThyssenKrupp's senior management had decided not to invest in health and safety at the factory, since they had decided to relocate production to another site. Therefore, the management knew that it was accepting a risk that a serious accident could occur and was aware of the potential legal consequences of the decision.

The prosecutor argued that if a senior manager decides to reduce investment in health and safety, he or she is aware that there is a high probability of a serious accident. If an accident occurs and someone dies as a result, the manager in question must be deemed guilty of homicide. Although the grounds have not yet been published, the decision indicates that the court appears to have agreed with this argument.

The law allows the courts to impose penalties on corporate bodies as well as individuals (for further details please see "Fraud and criminal liability of legal entities"). In this case the court found that the company bore corporate liability.

The decision has caused uproar. Most commentators have emphasised the unusual and specific facts of the case - it is very rare for a company to make a strategic decision not to invest in health and safety. One of the CEO's legal representatives has described the sentence as a gross error of law, maintaining that the company's management could hardly have wanted its workers to be killed or to have expected them to die in such circumstances.

Commentators are eagerly awaiting the grounds for the decision, particularly the justification for the finding that the defendant was guilty of wilful misconduct, not gross negligence.