In these cases, breaches of health and safety and environmental protection legislation led to high fines being imposed in the Crown Court despite no deaths being caused in either incident. Two appeals against sentence were heard together, as both concerned the appropriate level of fine for large companies.
In the case involving Sellafield, a failure in the segregation system led to radioactive waste being incorrectly classified as exempt resulting in it being sent to landfill for four months, before the failure was identified. Whilst it was accepted that there was no deliberate intent and no harm had been caused, the company was fined £700,000 notwithstanding full cooperation and an early guilty plea. This was said to be equivalent to just over one week’s profit for the company.
The second appeal was by Network Rail in respect of a fine of £500,000 imposed after an incident involving a car struck by a train at an unmanned railway crossing. A 10 year old boy was thrown from the vehicle and sustained severe injuries. Whilst earlier inspections had identified a potential risk at the crossing, no steps had been taken to minimise the risk in the six years prior to the incident. The substantial fine was imposed notwithstanding an early guilty plea and the absence of any suggestion that the company was putting profit before safety.
In both cases, it was argued that the level of the fine was manifestly excessive bearing in mind the absence of a fatality. The Court of Appeal dismissed both appeals. Sentencing guidance highlighted the criteria set out in R v F Howe (Engineers) Limited whereby the level of fine should bring home the message that health and safety must be taken seriously not just by the managers of the company, but also by its shareholders. The Court of Appeal also highlighted the importance of examining a company’s corporate structure and its finances in delivering that message.
In relation to Sellafield, Mrs Justice Thirlwall stated: “A fine of £700,000 after a guilty plea is a fine which reflects a case where the culpability was moderate, the actual harm was in effect nil and the risk of harm very low.” In relation to Network Rail, the judges considered the fine to be appropriate to ensure that the directors of Network Rail paid greater attention to their duties in the safeguarding of level crossings. Pertinently, the Appeal Court judges also concluded that had the sentencing judges imposed bigger fines in each case, they would have been free to do so “with no basis for criticism.”
Against this background it appears inevitable that future prosecutions of large companies may lead to significant fines even where no harm or injury has resulted from the breach.