The UK Crown Prosecution Service has authorised a charge of corporate manslaughter, the first of its kind, under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. The 2007 Act is designed to make it easier to prosecute organisations, particularly larger organisations, for fatalities caused by management failure. Although the company that has been charged is relatively small, if convicted, prosecuting authorities may prove increasingly confident to target charges at larger and more complex organisations.

The charge has been brought against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd in relation to the death of an employee in September 2008. The employee was taking soil samples from inside a deep pit when the sides of the pit collapsed causing him fatal injuries. In addition to the charge under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, the company has been charged with failing to discharge health and safety duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA). If convicted on either or both counts, the company faces a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine.

A director of the company has also been charged with the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter, and an offence under the HSWA on the basis that the offence committed by the company under the HSWA was committed with his consent or connivance, or attributable to his neglect. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, an organisation is guilty of corporate manslaughter where a failure in the way in which the organisation managed or organised its activities at both supervisory and strategic levels causes a person's death and amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased. To amount to a gross breach, the organisation’s conduct must fall far below what could reasonably have been expected in the circumstances. The contribution of senior management must also be a substantial element in the breach of duty. For further information, click here to access the Herbert Smith e-bulletin on the Act.

Proceedings will commence in the magistrates court on 17 June 2009 where the case will be passed on to the Crown Court for trial. This case will be closely monitored by us as it is expected to produce novel insights as to how liability is to be adjudged under the new regime.