Gloucestershire firm fined £385,000 over trench death

Image caption, Alexander Wright died when the trench he was working in collapsed

A Gloucestershire firm has been fined £385,000 after a man was killed when a trench collapsed on him.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings became the first firm convicted under new corporate manslaughter legislation after the death of Alexander Wright.

Mr Wright, 27, from Cheltenham, died in Brimscombe Lane, near Stroud, in September 2008.

A jury at Winchester Crown Court found Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings guilty of failing to ensure his safety.

Geologist Mr Wright was taking soil samples for a housing development in the 12.6ft (3.8m) pit, which was not supported by timbers, when it caved in.

The company had denied corporate manslaughter. No-one was in the dock for the three-week trial.

The prosecution was the first under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

'Gravely mistaken'

Jonathan Grimes, partner at law firm Kingsley Napley, said that previously for a corporate manslaughter prosecution to succeed "it was necessary to secure a conviction against a senior individual within the company".

"Under the new act this principle is replaced by a requirement for the organisation's activities to have caused the death in a way that falls far below what could reasonably be expected of that company," he said.

The judge, Mr Justice Field, said the company, which was described in court as being in a "parlous financial state", could pay the fine over 10 years at £38,500 a year.

He said the fine marked the gravity of the crime and the deterrent effect it would have on companies to adhere to health and safety guidance.

Image caption, Mr Wright was taking soil samples in the pit when it caved in

He said a larger fine would cause the small scale company to be liquidated, and four people would lose their jobs.

"It may well be that the fine in the terms of its payment will put this company into liquidation. If that is the case it's unfortunate but unavoidable but it's a consequence of the serious breach," he said.

The court was told that the company's director Peter Eaton, 61, is seriously ill with cancer and has months to live.

He was unable to stand trial on a manslaughter charge but the jury was told to assess his conduct in reaching a verdict.

Mr Justice Field said that Mr Eaton was, in substance, the company.

He said Mr Eaton knew of a rule dating back to 1981 which said that pits more than 1.2m (4ft) deep should be supported due to the dangers of collapse and death.

The judge said Mr Eaton ignored the rule and instead decided his knowledge and that of his assistants should be used to see if it was safe to enter a pit.

"This approach to trial pitting was extremely irresponsible," the judge said.

"Peter Eaton thought he knew better. In this he was gravely and culpably mistaken."

'Anger and bitterness'

The judge said a former employee had raised concerns about trial pitting with the Health and Safety Executive in 2005.

The executive contacted Mr Eaton, who said he would support the pits but did not.

Following the sentencing, Joe Wright, Mr Wright's father, said the family still felt anger and bitterness, but had sympathy with the judge's decision to give the company a chance to survive, and the employees to keep their jobs.

In a statement, the family said: "Nothing can return Alex to us, but we hope today's sentence will make similar companies revisit their working practices so other families are spared a tragedy like this."

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