A company director has been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment following the deaths of an employee and a customer at his fireworks shop in Stafford. The decision is another warning for business owners of the high penalties that can be imposed, both on businesses and on individuals, for breaches of health and safety law.

Background

On Thursday 30 October 2014, a fire broke out at SP Fireworks Limited, a shop in Stafford. Simon Hillier, an employee at SP Fireworks, and Stewart Staples, a customer, tragically died in the incident. Four people, including the company's director, Richard Pearson, were also injured.

In September 2017 it was confirmed that Mr Pearson would be prosecuted for two counts of gross negligence manslaughter, both of which he denied.

Gross Negligence

In the criminal trial, the prosecution argued that fireworks should not have been stored at the shop in the first place, as it was attached to neighbouring businesses. The police found that the number of fireworks stored was far beyond the level Mr Pearson was licensed to keep, and the fireworks themselves were unsafely stored, as they were too close together. Mr Pearson was reported to have told paramedics treating him at the scene that the warehouse was "rammed with explosives".

There was evidence that fireworks for a display had been prepared at the premises, rather than on site, increasing the risk of fire. Furthermore, the police found that if a fire did occur, there were insufficient measures in place to prevent it spreading.

Mr Pearson denied failing to take reasonable care in the storing and handling of explosives, and blamed others for the incident, including the deceased, Mr Hillier. This was not accepted by the jury and Mr Pearson was found guilty.

On sentencing Mr Pearson to 10 years in prison, it was noted that he had experience and knowledge of dealing with fireworks, and would have known the risk of not storing these properly. Judge Michael Chambers QC also told the director he had demonstrated an "arrogant recklessness for the safety of others".

Higher Penalties

This case is one of a number of recent decisions where breaches of health and safety law have resulted not only in a fine for a business, but in a custodial sentence for a senior manager or director. The Health and Safety Sentencing Guidelines in England and Wales, together with the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, provide the basis for the courts to impose high penalties where a death has occurred as a result of health and safety failings. Recent trends suggest the courts are imposing significant penalties.

In 2016, a care home director was sentenced to 3 years and 2 months imprisonment after pleading guilty to the manslaughter of a care home resident – in addition to his company being fined £300,000 for corporate manslaughter. Also that year, Brodies highlighted the prosecution of Allan Thompson, sole director of a construction company carrying out works to dismantle a building. Mr Thompson was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment following the death of an employee on the site.

More recently, in July 2017 the director of a construction company was jailed for 14 months (in addition to his company being fined £1.2m) for the deaths of two workmen during the refurbishment of a London flat; and on 15 June 2018, a couple were each sentenced to three years imprisonment for manslaughter by gross negligence, after a girl died when a bouncy castle, which was not safely secured, was carried away by the wind.

What does this mean for businesses?

These cases serve as a reminder to businesses, and to directors and senior managers, that in addition to the impact on the injured party and their families, the consequences of a health and safety breach on the business can be severe. It is not only the company's finances and reputation which will be impacted, but also the finances and reputation (and, in extreme cases, the liberty) of individuals with responsibility for health and safety. It is essential that businesses, directors and managers comply with their health and safety obligations.