The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 is a landmark in law. For the first time, companies and organisations can be found guilty of corporate manslaughter as a result of serious management failures resulting in a gross breach of a duty of care.
The Act, which came into force on 6 April 2008, clarifies the criminal liabilities of companies including large organisations where serious failures in the management of health and safety result in a fatality.
A company director, Peter Eaton from Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, heard his company was charged with the unlawful killing of Andrew Wright, an emloyee by gross negligence under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007, he is the first person to appear in court under a new corporate law after the young geologist died in a mudslide.
The new law aims to make simpler the prosecution of companies, corporate bodies and other bodies that employ people in relation to deaths at work. It was introduced following public outcries in the wake of rail and sea disasters that did not result in prosecutions of companies or senior managers.
For a successful manslaughter conviction under the current law, the prosecution must prove that a director or senior manager has a ‘controlling mind’ and is guilty of manslaughter. In practice, particularly in prosecutions of large companies, it can be very difficult to prove a convictable link between a death and the ‘controlling mind’. One of the most notorious prosecutions to fail in this respect was that of P&O European Ferries following the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.
The new offence means that organisations will be guilty of corporate manslaughter if there are ‘gross failures’ in the management of health and safety resulting in death. A substantial part of this failure must be at ‘senior level’. Senior level is defined as the people who make significant decisions about the organisation, or at least substantial parts of it. This includes centralised headquarters functionaries as well as those in operational management roles.
The offence applies to all companies, corporate bodies, partnerships (if employers), government departments and police forces. Courts will look at management systems and practices across the organisation, and if these structures cause a death which is shown to have resulted from ‘a gross breach of duty of care’ to the deceased, then the organisation will be considered guilty. The organisation’s conduct will have to have fallen far below what could be reasonably expected; juries will have to take into account any health and safety breaches, and how serious and dangerous they were.
While individuals can’t be prosecuted for the new offence, they can still be prosecuted for the existing offence of gross negligence manslaughter/culpable homicide for health and safety offences.
For instance, two businessmen were sentenced to nine and 12 months imprisonment respectively in July 2007 following the death of a 28-year-old man in a concrete manufacturing machine. Unusually, the company employing them was also found guilty of manslaughter and ordered to pay a £75,000 fine.
Eaton, as an individual, also faces a second charge of killing by gross negligence on the same date, under common law. In addition he and the company face one health and safety charge each, in relation to the same incident.
Eaton, 60, of Stroud, Gloucestershire, spoke only to give his name, address and occupation when he appeared before the town’s magistrates. The case was committed to Bristol crown court on 23 June and Eaton was granted unconditional bail.
Wright died while taking soil samples in the pit at a property in Stroud, which had been granted outline planning permission for two houses to be built.
The geology graduate, from Cheltenham, was declared dead at the scene. Rescue workers took more than two days to recover his body from several tonnes of mud.
So, finally relatives of those involved in serious rail crashes will get the justice that they deserve in the wake of a loved one being killed whilst on a train for example and someone being held accountable for these atrocities.