Gloucestershire-based engineering consultancy Cotswold Geotechnical was this week found guilty over the death of 27-year old geologist Alexander Wright, who was crushed in a trench in 2008 while gathering soil samples on a development site in Stroud.
No-one was in the dock for the three-week trial at Winchester Crown Court but the business denied corporate manslaughter.
Although Cotswold Geotechnical is the first company to be tried under the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, lawyers say the case doesn’t “truly test the scope” of the legislation.
“There is still a long way to go,” says Jonathan Grimes, a partner at Kingsley Napley. “Public confidence in the state’s ability to hold negligent companies to account will only return with the successful prosecution of a large corporate entity following a large-scale industrial incident with multiple fatalities. History is littered with failed prosecutions in these cases such as those following the Zeebrugge ferry and Hatfield rail disasters.”
Craig McAdam, a solicitor in the business crime and regulation team at law firm Russell Jones & Walker, agrees. “The real test of the Corporate Manslaughter Act is yet to be seen,” he says. “The fact that Cotswold Geotechnical is run by a sole director who was on-site immediately prior to the accident taking place made it a relatively easy case to try.
“The real test of the Act will come when a significantly larger company with a complex management structure is prosecuted. The Corporate Manslaughter Act enables prosecutors to go after senior managers straight up the management chain. Therefore we won’t see what the Act can really do until a company with a significant management chain is brought to trial.”
He adds that the new legislation could have detrimental effects on a business: “This is the first prosecution under the Act – the amount of media attention is unlikely to affect the future of Cotswold Geotechnical significantly, as it’s essentially a non-trading entity at the moment. However, companies prosecuted in the future may be negatively impacted by the attention. They could find themselves subject to publication orders requiring them to disclose their corporate manslaughter conviction. This aspect of the Act has yet to be fully tested and could potentially be very detrimental to the ongoing credibility of a business – possibly even more so than a fine.”
Cotswold Geotechnical was today fined £385,000 under the Act. Grimes says that while this is a “very substantial fine” for a firm of this size, it’s not out of step with guidance published last year by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which recommended a starting point of £500,000 for convictions for corporate manslaughter. “That this fine is lower than this recommended level will be a reflection of the company’s limited means,” he adds.