R v Watkin Jones & Son Ltd

On 4 October 2012 Mold Crown Court ordered Watkin Jones & Sons to pay a £450,000 fine and £98,000 prosecution costs following the death of a worker when carrying out roof work at the Menai Shopping Centre in North Wales.

Background

On 29 May 2007 Thomas Whitmarsh, a 21 year old roofing contractor, was working on a site run by Principle Contractors Watkin Jones & Son Ltd.

Most of the voids on the roof were protected by scaffold bars and covers or protection underneath to prevent falls. Watkin Jones and Son instructed Mr Whitmarsh, along with a colleague, to remove the scaffolding protection from around the void so that they could fit a rubber membrane to a flat concrete roof. They then covered the void with an unsecured piece of wood but this was not sufficient to stop Mr Whitmarsh falling through the roof void six metres to the floor below.

Mr Whitmarsh initially suffered severe injuries including significant brain injuries, impaired speech and co-ordination, went blind in one eye and suffered hearing loss. For several months following the accident Mr Whitmarsh gradually recovered in hospital. However, the brain injury he suffered exposed him to a greater risk of infection and he contracted acute meningitis and died on 17 December 2009.

Decision

Given the lapse of time between the accident and the death, at trial evidence was heard from an expert who concluded that there was more than an 80 per cent chance that the injuries Mr Whitmarsh had suffered contributed to his death.

The Court also heard that Mr Whitmarsh did not have any experience of working on a roof and had not received any training or instruction. There had also been a serious breakdown in the chain of command which led to a failure to consider who was capable of carrying out the work.

The Health and Safety Executive prosecuted Watkin Jones & Sons for a breach of section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 which is the general duty of an employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that non employees are not exposed to risks to their health or safety.

Following the successful prosecution Watkin Jones & Sons were fined £450,000.

The company subsequently appealed the level of the fine but the Court of Appeal recently dismissed the appeal, observing variously that the risks involved were "huge", that the fall had been "an accident waiting to happen", and endorsing the Crown Court’s judgment that there had been a serious breakdown in the chain of command. The company is unlikely to have taken any comfort from another of the Court of Appeal’s determinations; that it would not be ruined by the fine.