Two directors and an employee were this week given a very severe reminder of the seriousness of perverting the course of justice charges.

Reliance Scrap Metal Merchants (Parkstone) Ltd of Poole and Director, David Matthews, were cleared of Manslaughter charges by a jury at Winchester Crown Court following a re-trial.

The charges arose out of the death of an employee, Thomas Mooney, who was helping Matthews to cut up redundant gas cylinders for disposal. They were cutting the cylinders in the guillotine of a compactor machine when a cylinder containing highly volatile acetylene gases exploded as it was being cut and engulfed Mooney and Matthews in flames. Mooney suffered 90% full thickness burns from which he died 4 hours later. Matthews was severely injured with 45% burns.

The Company pleaded guilty to Health and Safety charges and was fined £60,000* . The Company accepted that it failed to discharge its duties under s2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 in that it failed adequately to assess the risks arising from the operation of its undertaking involving the scrapping of gas cylinders, or to have written risk assessments and method statements for the process of scrapping gas cylinders, or to ensure that the compactor machine was adequately guarded to protect against the ejection of a gas cylinder when used in the process of scrapping such cylinders.

The Company also admitted breaches of Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and Regulation 4 of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1999, but no separate penalty was imposed.

Matthews conceded 2 charges of breaching Section 37 of the Act for which he was fined £1,000. Fellow directors Michael Anderson and Rosalind Matthews were cleared of the section 37 charges they faced.

The need for a re-trial arose at the very end of the first trial following the emergence of fresh evidence from an eye-witness. This led to further police investigations and further charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice directed at David Matthews and Anderson and to employee David Lomas.

Lomas pleaded guilty to 2 charges relating to the removal of a piece of equipment from the compactor machine to obscure investigation of how the machine had been operated and subsequently reinstating the equipment so it fulfilled a different function. Lomas was sentenced to six months imprisonment for his part in these offences.

Matthews admitted one charge and was convicted of 2 further charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice arising out these offences for which he received a prison sentence of 3 years.

Anderson was cleared of one charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice but was convicted by the jury of another in which he was alleged to have said something to an employee along the lines of 'if anyone asks if Tommy (Mooney) and Dave (Matthews) were in the hopper (of the compactor) they weren't.” The employee had not seen the accident and was not influenced by this comment. Nevertheless, Anderson was sentenced to imprisonment for 15 months.

This case graphically illustrates the risks that Directors and employees face if they attempt to interfere with evidence or the investigation process. Here the Directors and company were acquitted of manslaughter and received total fines of £61,000 for Health and Safety breaches arising out of this tragic accident but received prison sentences of 3 years, 15 months and 6 months respectively for their respective parts in attempting to pervert the course of justice. As such, the case is a reminder to all those involved in the aftermath of a work related accident that they should be very careful not to act in a way that might leave them open to allegations of trying to influence the evidence illegitimately, whether by telling witnesses what to say, tampering with the scene of an accident or interfering with relevant documents.

* Subject to reduction depending on resolution of costs and the amount awarded