On 22 May 2014, a jury at Oxford Crown Court found Cavendish Masonry Ltd guilty of corporate manslaughter.  The company’s 23-year-old employee, David Evans, was struck in 2010 by a two-ton limestone slab: it had fallen from its lintel as it was being lifted into position.  The straps originally holding it in place had been loosened, so all that was keeping the top-heavy block from falling was its own weight.  Mr Evans died of catastrophic injuries to his chest and abdomen. 

This is the seventh conviction for corporate manslaughter since the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (the 2007 Act) came into force, and only the third following trial.  Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd was the first company to be prosecuted, when a 12.6ft-deep trial pit with no timber supports caved in on a geologist.

Section 1(1) of the 2007 Act makes it a criminal offence if the way a corporation or other specified organisation manages or organises its activities (i) causes a person’s death; and (ii) amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care.  Section 1(4) defines a ‘gross breach’ as conduct that ‘falls far below what can reasonably be expected of the organisation in all the circumstances’.

The most substantial sentencing option open to the judge will be a fine.  According to the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s Definitive Guideline, this ‘will seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds’.  However, fines have so far fallen short of the £500k minimum, as they have been limited by companies’ assets.  Cotswold Geotechnical’s finances, for instance, were in a ‘parlous state’; Field J nevertheless made it clear that if the company went into liquidation because of the £385k fine he imposed, that was‘unfortunate but unavoidable’.  HHJ McCreath went even further when fining Prince’s Sporting Club £134k last year, expressing his intention in no uncertain terms ‘to fine the company every penny that it has’.  The sentencing judge in this case will also be able to consider compensation, costs, a publicity order and a remedial order.

Cavendish Masonry will be sentenced at Oxford Crown Court on a date yet to be confirmed.  Other prosecutions are in the pipeline.

Tom Williams