The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act took effect in April 2008.

First UK Conviction for Corporate Manslaughter

After a three-week trial, a jury convicted a small company in connection with the September 2008 death of geologist Alexander Wright in a trench collapse. Cotswold Geotechnical was fined $622,000.

A British judge assessed a $622,000 fine Feb. 16 against a small company named Cotswold Geotechnical, which earlier in the week became the first UK company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter. A jury found the company guilty in connection with the September 2008 death of geologist Alexander Wright in a trench collapse. The trial lasted three weeks.

British news reports indicated the company had only eight employees when Wright died in a trench 12 feet deep that collapsed as he was working alone at a building site. The company has few financial resources, and the judge said it could pay the penalty in annual installments over a 10-year period.

Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said this initial conviction should make companies with weak safety programs take steps to improve them. "This conviction and the penalty handed down by the court should make less safety conscious firms -- both large and small -- sit up and think," said Roger Bibbings, RoSPA's occupational safety adviser. "The new corporate manslaughter offense was introduced as a way of ensuring that gross corporate failings resulting in death could be dealt with effectively by criminal law. It was aimed particularly at redressing the balance between successful prosecutions of small firms for the crime of manslaughter and faltering prosecutions of large firms.

"Given that this first case involved a needless death in a smaller firm, we will not see the full potential of the law, and its associated penalties, until there is a successful prosecution of a larger organization. But it should prompt those in senior positions in all types of organization to check that their own house is in order. Those who can assure themselves that their health and safety management systems are effective have nothing to fear."

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act took effect in April 2008. It does not apply to individuals, but senior managers' actions are considered and a substantial part of the failure that brought about a fatality must be found to lie with senior managers for a firm to be convicted, according to RoSPA, which says the penalties can include unlimited fines, remedial orders, and publicity orders.

"There is currently a new 'light touch climate' in health and safety. However, we cannot have light touch justice when people fail badly to meet their obligations to protect workers," Bibbings said. "The corporate manslaughter law is therefore an important part of the UK's overriding health and safety system."

RoSPA offers information and advice for directors and senior managers at www.rospa.com/occupationalsafety/sector/directors.aspx.

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