Corporate manslaughter convictions of larger companies remain rare. Convictions and sentencing of directors and senior managers for gross negligence manslaughter are however becoming more severe. A company will be guilty of the offence of corporate manslaughter if the way in which its activities are managed or organised causes a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the company to the deceased. But this is only if the way in which its activities are managed or organised by senior management are a substantial element in the breach. Here we take a look at some recent convictions.
A gardening supplies company, (a small company), is the 32nd organisation to be sentenced for corporate manslaughter under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. The company was sentenced following a retrial and conviction of the company’s owner and managing director in April 2023. It was fined £700,000 and ordered to pay £90,000 costs.
The company’s maintenance engineer was crushed by a robotic packing arm at the company’s premises on Good Friday. Most of the workforce had left for the day. The deceased was working alone on an automated bagging production line. The robotic arm of the machine was powerful and used to move aggregate into bags on pallets for transportation. The deceased identified that the sensor on the machine needed cleaning. He paused the robotic arm by pressing a “stop system” button and entered the machine via a gap in the fencing. The gap had been created by tying back a section of fencing with cable ties, rather than using the interlocked gate. A sensor became activated while the deceased was within the range of the robotic arm which crushed him against the conveyor belt. What caused the activation of the sensor is unknown.
Within weeks of the machine being installed the safety systems of the machine had been disabled or bypassed. This allowed unrestricted access for cleaning and maintenance while it was operating and remained up until the fatal incident.
The Sentencing Council’s 2016 definitive guideline on corporate manslaughter requires courts to determine the seriousness of the offence by reference to: how foreseeable was serious injury; how far short of the appropriate standard did the offender fall; how common is this kind of breach in this organisation; was there more than one death, or a high risk of further deaths, or serious personal injury in addition to death.
The judge placed the company’s offence into the higher of two categories indicating a high level of harm or culpability within the context of the offence.
The company’s latest unaudited accounts showed a profit and loss account of just over £2 million for the year to 30th September 2021. It had a turnover of between £2 million and £10 million classifying it as a “small” company for sentencing purposes.
Within the guideline this produced a starting point fine of £800,000 within a range of £540,000 to £2.8 million.
The judge considered there were no aggravating factors beyond those that had led to the determination of the breach as gross and to the placing of the offence in the higher category. Mitigating factors were accepted, including that the company had no previous convictions and had taken steps to improve conditions following the incident. It had also cooperated with the investigation and was remorseful. The judge accordingly reduced the starting point figure to £700,000.
Gross negligence manslaughter
Gross negligence manslaughter is where an individual’s breach of duty owed to another was a substantial cause of that person’s death and the conduct of breach was so grossly negligent and so bad as to amount to a criminal act or omission deserving punishment. Such conduct must be “reprehensible” and “truly exceptionally bad” and “showing such indifference to an obviously serious risk to life.”
With regard to the conviction of the garden supplies company’s owner for this offence, the Sentencing Council’s 2018 definitive guideline on gross negligence manslaughter sets out four levels of culpability namely: very high, high, medium and lower. The judge found the owner’s culpability sat between high and medium.
High culpability has a starting point of 8 years’ custody within a range of 6 to 12 years. Medium culpability has a starting point of four years’ custody within a range of three to seven years.
The judge again found no aggravating factors beyond those that had led to the gross nature of the breach. In mitigation it was accepted that the owner: had no previous convictions; took steps to improve conditions following the incident; cooperated with the investigation; and was remorseful. The judge imprisoned him for five years.
In 2021, a pub owner pleaded guilty to an offence of gross negligence manslaughter following the electrocution and death of a seven-year-old boy in the pub garden due to faulty wiring of garden lights. The owner was considered to have very high culpability. This has a starting point of 12 years’ custody within a range of 10 to 18 years. He was sentenced to 9 years’ imprisonment after allowance of one third discount was given for early plea.
In a separate and exceptional case involving a food recycling company, the wife of the company’s owner and director, who was not a director herself, but a part time worker with the company helping with accounts was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter. The judge considered the wife to have very high culpability for instructing staff to enter an unventilated confined space containing recycled food products resulting in fatalities to two of the staff.
The judge considered there to be aggravating factors for failing to heed previous warnings and seeking to unfairly blame others. Within the range of 10 to 18 years for very high culpability the judge considered the appropriate sentence to be 17 years with a downward adjustment to 13 years to reflect mitigation and delay. She was also required to serve two thirds of that period in custody before being released on licence.