J Murray & Son became the fourth organisation to be convicted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (Corporate Manslaughter Act). This followed a prosecution concerning an incident on 28 February 2012 when an employee, Norman Porter, became entangled in a machine with fatal results. The managing director had removed the guarding for the machine so that the raw materials could be added more easily and was therefore aware that it was in an unsafe condition. A joint investigation between the Police service of Northern Ireland and the HSE for Northern Ireland had failed to establish how Mr Porter had come to be in the machine as there were no witnesses, but it was believed he either fell or was dragged into the machine after getting his clothing caught. It was understood that the machine had been used without the safeguarding panels which exposed the dangerous moving slats of the horizontal blender, over a period of three years.
J Murray & Son pleaded guilty to breach of section 1 of the Corporate Manslaughter Act and was fined £100,000 plus prosecution costs of £10,450. Due to its poor financial circumstances, the company was allowed to pay the fine in five instalments of £20,000.
Princes Sporting Club Limited was fined £134,597 including costs after pleading guilty to charges of Corporate Manslaughter and breach of section 3 HSWA 1974 following an incident on 11 September 2010 at a child’s birthday party on Back Lake in Bedfont. As some children were being pulled along in a banana boat on the lake, one of the children, 11 year old Mari-Simon Cronje, fell in and was hit by the boat towing the inflatable resulting in her death. Judge McCreath stated: “I have no greater power to do anything other than impose a fine and I cannot impose a greater fine than all of [the company’s] assets.”
In both cases, individual charges against directors were dropped following confirmation of guilty pleas on behalf of the company.
In the sixth case, both the company and a director entered a plea of guilty in order to conclude the prosecution. Mobile Sweepers (Reading) Ltd (MRSL) was convicted following an incident on 6 March 2012, when its employee, Malcolm Hinton, sustained fatal crushing injuries after he inadvertently cut through a hydraulic hose whilst carrying out repairs to a defective hopper, which weighed approximately half a tonne, on a sweeper. Mr Hinton had been instructed to carry out the task by the company’s sole director, Mervyn Owens, despite Mr Hinton not being trained or qualified to do so. The Crown painted a picture of the company being “run on a shoestring” and that it had little regard for health and safety.
The company faced charges of breach of section 2 HWSA, Regulation 5(1) of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations and section 1 of the Corporate Manslaughter Act. Mr Owens faced charges of gross negligence manslaughter as well as causing or allowing the company to be in breach of the HSWA and PUWER. Whilst the company entered a plea of guilty to the charge under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, Mr Owens pleaded guilty to a charge of breach of section 37(1) of the HSWA for allowing the company to be in breach of section 2(1) of the HSWA with the remaining charges against both left to lie on file. His Honour Judge Guy Boney QC stated: “When MRSL was in operation it was the kind of organization in which the conduct of the company and of Mr Owens personally were indivisible. Mr Owens was the company.”
MRSL, which had ceased trading shortly after the incident, was fined just £8,000 for the offence – the lowest fine to have been imposed for a Corporate Manslaughter charge – and was ordered to pay £4,000 in costs. Mr Owens was fined £183,000 with £8,000 in costs. Mr Owens was also disqualified from holding the position of director for five years after the court heard that he had started an almost identical company after MRSL ceased trading on the day of the incident, although it was argued that the new company was run in a “completely different way”.
The judge also imposed a publicity order (provided for in section 10 of the Corporate Manslaughter Act) for the conviction and directed the wording be published in two local newspapers as follows: “On December 2nd Mobile Sweepers (Reading) Ltd pleaded guilty to one offence of corporate manslaughter, having been responsible for causing the death of Malcolm Hinton as a result of a gross breach of duty by following a system of work which was demonstrably unsafe.”
It is of note that whilst the Sentencing Guidelines indicated that a charge of Corporate Manslaughter should result in a fine with a starting point of £500,000, none of the cases to date have resulted in fines at or above that level, reflecting the relatively small size and means of the organisations convicted . There are further cases in the pipeline and we will provide further updates in future bulletins.