Only 12 months after it came into force, prosecuting authorities are putting the new statutory offence of corporate manslaughter to the test. On 23 April 2009 the Crown Prosecution Service authorised a charge of corporate manslaughter against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd in relation to the death of Alexander Wright on 5 September 2008.
Mr Wright, who was employed by Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings 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 of the pit collapsed crushing him.
Although it would now be possible to charge the company in isolation, the CPS have nevertheless also laid charges against Peter Eaton, a director of the company, for gross negligence manslaughter and with an offence contrary to Section 37, Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd has also been charged with failing to discharge a duty contrary to Section 33 Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
If convicted individually Mr Eaton could face an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison. The company would face an unlimited fine, which, with a turnover last year of £333,000, would be between £8,000 and £33,000 if draft guidance is followed.
Mr Eaton and the company will appear at Stroud Magistrates' Court on 17 June.
The new offence was introduced by the Corporate Manslaughter Act in 2008 following a number of failed attempts to prosecute large organisations in connection with high profile deaths, such as the failure to convict Balfour Beatty following the Hatfield rail crash. The old common law offence relied upon convicting an individual director or senior manager of manslaughter. Their guilt convicted the company as they were considered its “directing mind”. This had only ever been successful where the defendant was a small organisation with one or two directors.
If trusts have not already carried out a strategic review of the compliance arrangements they should do so now. Because organisations will be convicted where they fell far below what was expected, it is often what you don't know that comes back to haunt you. Taking time out to think strategically about the areas that you may have missed, areas where you may be vulnerable, and where monitoring and review procedures could be improved, will repay the investment in the long run.