Letting The Company Carry The Can
Phil Crosbie on corporate manslaughter prosecutions – Part 1
IT is widely accepted that an increasing number of corporate manslaughter cases are coming to court. In 2014, there have already been more prosecutions in court than in the previous five years.
As the decisions trickle through, we can see emerging trends; one of which is the fact that most corporate manslaughter cases were accompanied by ‘individual’ prosecutions arising from the same fact pattern. This is in contrast to other serious health & safety prosecutions, where individual accountability is rare.
Through the three parts of this article, we will discuss the current trend, consider why it is occurring and what it might mean for the future.
Previous cases: The first prosecution for corporate manslaughter under the ‘new’ offence involved Geotechnical Cotswold
Holdings Ltd, following the death of a trainee geologist. The sole company director, Peter Eaton, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter and a health & safety offence, by way of the Section 37 gateway for senior individuals under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (‘HSWA’).
The link between the death and the actions of the director were clear. In a small company with less than 10 employees, Mr Eaton could be said to represent the ‘controlling mind’ of the business. The court described Mr Eaton as being ‘in total control of the way in which its affairs were managed and in which the work was organised’. (R v Geotechnical Cotswold Holdings Ltd  EWCA Crim 1337).
Mr Eaton arguably warranted individual charges, it being said in the Crown Court, with reference to company rules regarding trench depths: ‘He incorporated it into the defendant’s health and safety booklet that he himself compiled in 1992. However, he did not apply the rule to himself or his assistant geologists. He thought the rule was glib nonsense.’
Resolution of the case against Mr Eaton was never reached as medical evidence showed that he was terminally ill and the proceedings against him were stayed. Nevertheless, the first corporate manslaughter prosecution under the ‘new’ law showed that individuals would be considered for individual offences, as well as any organisation.
The third corporate manslaughter case, against Lion Steel Equipment Ltd, quelled any suggestion that individuals would not be ‘in the frame’ during corporate manslaughter investigations.
The case marks a ‘high point’ in terms of individual prosecutions arising out of a fatality. As well as corporate offences, three directors were charged with gross negligence manslaughter and health and safety offences by way of Section 37 HSWA.
Such were the breadth of charges, that some were thrown out by the Court on the basis that relevant legal thresholds were not satisfied. Lion Steel pleaded guilty to corporate manslaughter as the remaining individual charges fell away. Following cases have seen fewer individual charges, albeit the trend to include individuals on the charge sheet remains.
In October 2013 J Murray & Sons was fined £100,000 following the death of a worker pulled into an animal feed mixing machine. The company’s owner and director, James Murray, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter in addition to the corporate manslaughter charge. The individual charge was not proceeded with and the case against the company went ahead.
In November 2013 Princes Sporting Club was convicted of corporate manslaughter following the death of an 11-year-old girl involved in an inflatable boat accident. Director Frederick Guy Walker was also charged under Section 37 but the charge was later dropped.
Early this year, Mervyn Owens, a director of Mobile Sweepers (Reading) Ltd was fined £183,000 after admitting a charge under Section 2 HSWA, through the Section 37 gateway. Mobile Sweepers had also pleaded guilty to corporate manslaughter. A charge of gross negligence manslaughter against Mr Owens was left to lie on file.
There have been suggestions by many in the legal field that individual charges were levied as an attempt to offer a bargaining position and secure ‘guilty’ pleas without the risks of going to trial. The notion being that senior individual would ‘sacrifice’ the corporation to save themselves from a potential prison sentence. This is a dangerous, and somewhat ill-advised observation.
Next month, I will continue to discuss the observation that senior individuals might ‘sacrifice’ the company to save themselves from a potential prison sentence,
Phil Crosbie is a senior associate at Eversheds, described as one of the world’s largest corporate law firms.
This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal. You can find them at www.contractflooringjournal.co.uk.