First corporate manslaughter trial under the new act gets underway:

R –V- Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Limited

This week the first prosecution of a company under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (“CMCHA”) begins at Winchester Crown Court.

The case concerns the death of Alexander Wright on 5 September 2008 who was killed while collecting soil samples in a trench which collapsed on him.

Originally, Cotswold Geotechnical (Holdings) Ltd was charged under CMCHA and the sole director, Peter Eaton, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter, with both also facing associated health and safety charges. Late last year, the case against Eaton was stayed due to his ill health leaving the company as the sole defendant.

The case is important because it is the first case to be brought under CMCHA but beyond that, its significance is limited. The company concerned is relatively small and there is therefore virtual indivisibility between its corporate and human identity. In this aspect the case bears similarities to those cases of corporate manslaughter that were successfully brought before CMCHA, most notably the prosecution of OLL Ltd following the Lyme Bay Canoe Tragedy. The case will therefore not really test the ability of CMCHA to identify corporate responsibility for manslaughter even where a corresponding human defendant (“the controlling mind”) cannot be identified. This was one of the main purposes of CMCHA and was intended to resolve the problems that led to the failures of prosecutions following disasters such as Herald of Free Enterprise and Hatfield.

The case is also unlikely to test the sentencing guidance that was published last year and which proposed a starting point of £500,000 for companies convicted of corporate manslaughter. The company in this case is not thought to have sufficient resources to meet a fine of that magnitude.

Despite this, given the absence of any other cases in the pipeline, the case will be watched closely to see what can be learned from it.

The case is estimated to last 3 weeks. A further ebulletin will be sent following the verdict and sentence.