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Geologist Death Results in First Corporate Manslaughter Conviction

Corporate manslaughter act

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings has today become the first company to be convicted of the new offence of corporate manslaughter.

Alex Wright was 27-years-old when he died on 5 September 2008. He was a geologist for Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings and was investigating soil conditions in a deep trench on a development plot in Stroud when it collapsed and killed him.

Kate Leonard, reviewing lawyer from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) Special Crime Division, said:

“Alex Wright was a young man, full of promise. His death is a tragedy for all those who loved him and would never have happened if Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings had properly protected him.

“I hope that this conviction offers his family some sense of justice. I send them my sincere condolences once again.”

The CPS told the court that Mr Wright was left working alone in the 3.5 metre-deep trench to ‘finish-up’ when the company director left for the day. The two people who owned the development plot decided to stay at the site as they knew Mr Wright was working alone in the trench. About 15 minutes later they heard a muffled noise and then a shout for help.

While one of the plot-owners called the emergency services, the other one 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 enable Mr Wright to breathe. At that point, more earth fell so quickly into the pit that it covered 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 their system of work in digging trial pits was wholly and unnecessarily dangerous. The company ignored well-recognised industry guidance that prohibited entry into excavations more than 1.2 metres deep, requiring junior employees to enter into and work in unsupported trial pits, typically from 2 to 3.5 metres deep. Mr Wright was working in just such a pit when he died.

There was no person in the dock at Winchester Crown Court during the three-week trial as it is the company, rather than an individual, which is charged with corporate manslaughter.

On Thursday 17th February, Cotswold Geotechnical was fined £385,000, which represents 116% of its 2008 turnover. The judge, Mr Justice Field, said the gross breach of the company’s duty to Mr Wright was a “grave offence”.

He said the company could pay the money back over 10 years at a rate of £38,500 per annum. He explained the fine marked the gravity of the offence and the deterrent effect it would have on companies to strongly adhere to health and safety guidance.

The case was investigated by Gloucestershire Constabulary and supported by the Health and Safety Executive. Click here to see the press release issued by the CPS.

Skyguard can help employers fulfil their Duty of Care and protect your organisation from potentially disastrous prosecution such as this. Read about the various pieces of legislation which employers must adhere to.