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First corporate manslaughter trial may be scuppered by director’s poor health

19 October 2010

The first ever trial of a company charged with offences under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 may not go ahead, Solicitors Journal has learned.

Kevin Bridges, partner at Pinsent Masons, said he would be pressing for the remaining charges against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings to be dropped at a hearing in December, because of his client’s ill health.

Peter Eaton was the sole director of the company prosecuted by the CPS under the Act following the death of a young geologist, Alexander Wright.

The 27-year-old was taking soil samples from a pit which had been excavated as part of a site survey in Stroud, Gloucestershire, when the sides of the pit collapsed, crushing him.

Earlier this month, a judge at Bristol Crown Court permanently stayed proceedings against Eaton for common law manslaughter by gross negligence and a separate offence under section 37 of the Health and Safety Act 1974.

“The case against him was stayed on the grounds of ill health,” Bridges said. “He is very poorly.

“He will not be going to prison, but, as far as he is concerned, a case remains hanging over him.”

The company has been charged both with a gross breach of duty of care under the Act and a separate health and safety offence. The penalty under the Act is an unlimited fine and sentencing guidelines published early this year suggested the fine could be millions of pounds and recommended that they should seldom be below £500,000 (see solicitorsjournal.com 16 February 2010).

However, Bridges said it was possible that if the judge stayed the remaining proceedings in December, the first corporate manslaughter trial would not go ahead.

“In this case the only forum where these issues will be considered will be an inquest,” he said. “This is a question for the judge.”

Bridges said the Act was introduced in the wake of public disquiet at big companies escaping prosecution under the common law.

“The CPS has chosen not to prosecute a larger company, but a small one,” he said.

“Even if the CPS achieves a conviction, it is unlikely to be a significant case for interpreting the law.”

The CPS charged Cotswold and its director in April 2009, a year after the Act was implemented.

Due to Eaton’s poor health, the trial was delayed until February 2010, and has now been postponed again until 24 January 2011.

A spokeswoman for the CPS said that the trial would take place at Winchester Crown Court.

Bill Dunkerley, solicitor at national firm Berrymans Lace Mawer, said he hoped the trial would clarify “the extent and scope of the 2007 Act, and in particular the practical interpretation of section 1 of the Act in relation to the way in which an organisation’s activities were managed can be held to be causative of a person’s death.

“However, given the limited size of the defendant company, one has to question the utility of this case in shedding light on what in the future is to be regarded as ‘senior management’.”

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Discrimination Procedures Costs Health & Safety Courts & Judiciary