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Geologist's death results in first UK corporate manslaughter conviction


Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings yesterday became the first company in the UK to be convicted of the offence of corporate manslaughter, in a test case that will cause waves in the industry.

The Gloucestershire-based company, which employed eight people at the time, had been charged with corporate manslaughter following the death of 27-year-old Alex Wright in September 2008. Wright was a junior geologist investigating soil conditions in a deep trench on a development plot in Stroud when it collapsed and killed him.

The Crown Prosecution Service told Winchester Crown Court that Wright was left working alone in the 3.5 metre-deep trench to ‘finish up’ when the company director, Peter Eaton, left for the day. The two people who owned the development plot decided to stay, as they knew 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 Wright up to his head. He climbed into the trench and removed some of the soil to enable Wright to breathe. At that point, more earth fell so quickly into the pit that it covered Wright completely and, despite the plot owner’s best efforts, Wright died of traumatic asphyxiation.

The prosecution’s case was that Wright was working in a dangerous trench because Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings’ systems had failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect him while working in that way. In convicting the company, the jury found that its system of work in digging trial pits was wholly and unnecessarily dangerous. The company ignored well-recognised industry guidance.

The Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act 2007 came into force on 6 April 2008. The law makes it an offence for an organisation to manage or organise its activities in such a way as to cause a person’s death, where such management or organisation amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care. An organisation will, however, only be found guilty if the way in which its activities are managed or organised by its ‘senior management’ is a substantial element in the breach of duty.

This first case was postponed a number of times, due to concerns regarding company director Peter Eaton’s health. He was previously charged with gross negligence manslaughter and a health and safety offence, but a judge ruled last year that he was too unwell to stand trial.

Eaton was not present at the trial. In a statement read to the jury, Eaton said someone always had to be above ground if a person had entered a pit. He said he was "astonished" Wright entered the pit after he, Eaton, had left the site. But the prosecutor told the jury "the case against the company was essentially an assessment of the conduct of Peter Eaton".

"The substantial cause of Alex Wright's death was the failure of the company to manage its affairs so as to comply with its legal duty to ensure that Alex Wright's health was not put at risk," he said.

The verdict will be picked over by lawyers as a number of further prosecutions are awaiting the outcome of this first trial. Richard Evens, training and marketing director at St John Ambulance, urged businesses to ensure proper health and safety measures were in place in the wake of the verdict. "We hope this case will alert employers in all sectors. Stringent processes must be in place to avoid a repeat of this tragic accident," Evens said.

"The Corporate Manslaughter Act is there to safeguard against lax attitudes to health and safety by holding employers accountable for neglecting their duty of care to workers, visitors and customers."