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£385,000 fine could bankrupt first firm convicted of corporate manslaughter

16 May 2011

After a three-week hearing it took jurors just 90minutes to decide Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings were guilty of corporate manslaughter, becoming the first company to be convicted of the offence that came into force in April 2008.

The case reached its conclusion on 15 February. The company were fined £385,000 for failing to ensure the safety of 27-year-old geologist Alex Wright, who died on 5 September 2008.

The judge at Winchester Crown Court said the fine reflected the gravity of the offence and would be a deterrent to other companies and a reminder for them to adhere to health & safety guidance.

The fine could effectively put the £300,000-a-year company, described in court as being in a "parlous financial state", out of business, although in passing sentence the judge, Mr Justice Field, said the company could pay the fine off at a rate of £38,500 a year. The company does not have to pay any costs. There was no-one in the dock during the three-week trial as it was the company, rather than an individual, facing the charge of corporate manslaughter.

The death occured when Alex Wright was investigating soil conditions in a 3.8m deep unsupported trial pit on a development plot in Stroud. The pit collapsed and killed him.

The court heard how Mr Wright was left working alone in the pit to "finish-up" when his company director left for the day. About 15minutes later the two people who owned the development plot heard a muffled noise and a shout for help.

While one of the plot owners called the emergency services, the other ran to the trench where he saw that a surge of soil had fallen in and buried Mr Wright up to his head. He climbed into the trench and removed some of the soil to allow Mr Wright to breathe.

At that point, more earth fell into the pit covering Mr Wright completely and, despite the plot owners' best efforts, Mr Wright died of traumatic asphyxiation.

The prosecution’s case was that Mr Wright was working in a dangerous trench because Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings’ systems had failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect him from working in that way.

In convicting the company, the jury found that the company’s system of work in digging trial pits was wholly and unnecessarily dangerous. The company had ignored well-recognized industry guidance that prohibits entry into excavations more than 1.2m deep, and had required its junior employees to enter and work in unsupported trial pits, typically 2–3.5m deep.

Company director Peter Eaton was previously charged with gross negligence manslaughter and a health & safety offence, but a judge ruled last year he was too unwell to stand trial.

An analysis of the case by solicitor advocate Elizabeth Hyde will be published in the next hard copy of Natural Stone Specialist.

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