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19th September 2011

Second Corporate Manslaughter Prosecution Underway

The second prosecution under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 has got underway, in a case that will hopefully clarify how the legislation will be interpreted by the Courts.

Storage equipment supplier Lion Steel Equipment Ltd is facing charges over the death of employee Steven Berry, who was killed in 2008 when he fell through a fragile plastic roof panel.

The company is charged with Corporate Manslaughter and breaches of the Health and Safety Act. Three of the firm’s directors have also been charged with gross negligence manslaughter and health and safety offences

Why is this case important to you?

Although little is known about the details that substantiate the prosecution of Lion Steel, it appears that this case may address some of the unanswered questions from the first prosecution under the Act.

The first prosecution was against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings (CGH), a small firm with less than five employees.  It was found guilty of corporate manslaughter following the death of geologist Alexander Wright who died when an unsupported trench collapsed on top of him. CGH was fined £385,000 – which the Court acknowledged was likely to put it out of business.

CGH was a tiny organisation with a simple management structure – it was effectively a “one man band”. The prosecution did not, therefore, clarify issues such as who was  “senior management” and whether the way in which they organised matters was a “substantial element” of the breach.

On the other hand, Lion Steel is a medium sized company employing around 100 staff. Three directors are being prosecuted as individuals. Whilst it is dangerous to make assumptions, it is assumed that they will be classed as “senior managers” and that the case will look at how they – and possibly others – organised the company’s activities and whether that substantially led to Mr Berry’s death.

The case is therefore likely to explore issues of interest to larger organisations which may have escaped a corporate manslaughter charge under the old legislation where a “directing mind” had to be identified.

Also of interest is that the accident does not appear to be linked to the company’s core functions.  Lion Steel is a storage equipment supplier, yet Mr Berry was killed after falling through a roof panel.  We have previously identified that ancillary activities can pose the biggest to companies because they fall under the radar.

This highlights the importance of carrying out suitable risk assessments all areas of your activities, not just those that relate to core business.

Three directors have also been charged with manslaughter. This is not necessary for the purposes of proving the case against the company, but it demonstrates that the CPS considers that their individual actions / inactions directly lead to Mr Berry’s death. This also demonstrates that the enforcement bodies will prosecute individuals, as well as organisations, when it is in the public interest to do so.

Finally, the individuals and the company have also been charged with health and safety offences.  Again, this is not necessary for the purposes of proving the corporate manslaughter case, but health and safety breaches must be taken into account by the Court when assessing whether there has been a gross breach of a relevant duty of care. It also gives the prosecution some form of ‘fall back’ position in the event that the manslaughter charges are not successful.

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