As reported in previous editions of our Update, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings was the first company to be prosecuted for the new offence of Corporate Manslaughter following the death of Alex Wright, a geologist employed by Cotswold Geotechnical on 5 September 2008.
Cotswold Geotechnical was fined £385k, but given 10 years to pay, at an annual rate of £38.5k. However, with the company’s finances being described as being in a “parlous” state, it was considered a possibility that the company would not be able to discharge the fine and would go out of business. In fact, when sentencing, Mr Justice Field highlighted that such a consequence was “unfortunate but unavoidable”.
The impact of this first conviction is unclear, given that there was no consideration of what constituted “senior management” under the new legislation, and the separate prosecution against the Managing Director himself was dropped due to his ill health. But with the CPS confirming that it is considering other cases where such prosecutions may follow, its next steps are awaited.
Mr Wright was investigating soil conditions in a deep trench when it collapsed and killed him. The prosecution followed a joint investigation by the Gloucestershire Constabulary and the HSE which found that Cotswold Geotechnical had a “cavalier” attitude to health and safety, leaving Mr Wright to complete the samples alone in the trench whilst the owner of the company left for the day. The plot owners stayed on site as they knew Mr Wright was working alone. When the trench collapsed, Mr Wright was buried up to his head before a second collapse caused him to be completely covered despite the two plot owners’ best efforts to rescue him.
The jury found that the company’s procedures for working in pits were wholly and unreasonably dangerous. The court heard that it was industry practice to forbid entry into pits which were excavated at more than 1.2 metres deep, whilst the company routinely had junior employees working in unsupported pits which were typically between 2–3.5 metres deep.