08th October 2014
Corporate Manslaughter convictions and prosecutions
The Crown Prosecution Service recently announced that Baldwins Crane Hire Limited has been charged with corporate manslaughter following an investigation by Lancashire Police and the Health and Safety Executive.
The prosecution has been brought following the death of Lindsay Easton, a crane driver employed by the company. On 15 August 2011, Mr Easton was driving a crane down a steep road away from a wind farm. During this journey, it is alleged that the brakes failed. The crane crashed into an earth bank and fell from the road. The company had been carrying out work on wind turbines in the area.
This will be the twelfth prosecution since the offence of corporate manslaughter was introduced by The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (“the Act”) which came into force on 8 April 2008. The intention of the Act was to simplify the path to successfully prosecuting companies and increase corporate manslaughter convictions.
Historically, prior to the Act, there were difficulties in convicting large corporations under the common law offence of manslaughter, as illustrated by high profile fatal accidents like the Herald of the Free Enterprise ferry disaster and the Hatfield train crash. Corporate manslaughter prosecutions failed against both companies with one of the main reasons being that various acts of negligence could not be attributed to any individual, like a director or officer of the company, being a "controlling mind" as required under the common law offence.
The Act was brought in to change the "controlling mind" requirement, focusing instead on the way in which activities are managed or organised by senior management at a company and the adequacy of those arrangements.
Since the Act came into force, there have been a number of prosecutions, most resulting in convictions. However, a lot of the convictions relate to small owner managed companies with simple management structures where “senior management” is easier to identify, for example, where directors have a hands-on involvement in the activities which led to the death. Arguably, these cases were likely to have been successfully prosecuted under the common law offence in any event.
We are yet to see a trial against a large company where the interpretation of the Act including the scope of senior management is likely to be tested.
The consequences of corporate manslaughter convictions for companies are significant with adverse reputational impact and with the Sentencing Guidelines stating that fines for organisations found guilty of corporate manslaughter will seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds. Case law shows that where failures are serious enough, the courts will be willing to impose fines that result in putting a company out of business.
Individuals such as directors will also be the subject of possible significant penalties if charged with offences such as gross negligence manslaughter where available sentences include imprisonment, director’s disqualification orders and significant fines.
In order to have a chance of defending a charge of corporate manslaughter (or any other health and safety related offences), it is essential that companies of all sizes and their senior management ensure the following:
- That there is a proactive and responsible approach to safety management within the business.
- Safety management is supported by an up to date and suitably documented system.
- That the system of safety management is regularly reviewed and updated.