Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents
Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents

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Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents

3.2 The history of corporate manslaughter prosecutions in the UK

What follows is a historical summary of the corporate manslaughter offence in the UK. The corporate manslaughter ‘story’ began with the case of Glanville Evans (Slapper, 2011, p. 86). The next instalments of the corporate manslaughter story came over 20 years after his death when, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a series of high-profile incidents of corporate failings but few convictions for corporate manslaughter. For instance, the prosecution in 1990 against P&O Ferries (Dover), after the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized with the deaths of 192 people, resulted in acquittals for manslaughter. This would appear to be because the jury could not be sure beyond reasonable doubt that the resulting deaths were due to ‘criminal’ breaches of duty as required by the test in Adomako.

In recent years there have been several rail disasters in the UK, such as those at Clapham Junction in 1997, Hatfield in 2000 and Potters Bar in 2002. Inquiries into the causes of these incidents reveal a variety of organisational failures including the failure to install up-to-date safety equipment and to introduce new rolling stock, the inadequate training of drivers, the failure to undertake track repairs and poor maintenance of the points, the failure of safety systems and the lack of an appropriate safety culture, to name but a few. Despite the evidence of corporate incompetence, complacency and cost-cutting revealed by the inquiries into each disaster and a cumulative death total of nearly one hundred people, prosecutions for manslaughter against the organisations concerned and their officials were either not proceeded with for lack of evidence, or ultimately failed in obtaining a conviction.

Case study: the Southall rail crash

The Southall crash occurred in September 1997 when the driver of a high-speed passenger train run by Great Western Trains (GWT) ignored a red signal while travelling at a speed of 125 miles per hour and collided with a freight train crossing the main lines, killing seven people and injuring a further 151. Approximately £10 million worth of damage was caused. Three inquiries were launched, each focusing on whether the passenger train had passed a signal at red or was mistakenly shown a green light. The Health and Safety Commission report found that the primary cause of the accident was the driver’s failure to respond to two signals warning of the freight train on the track ahead. He could not account for why he had missed the signals, but the report said he may have ‘dozed off’.

There were two safety systems on the train that, if functioning and used appropriately, could have prevented the tragedy. These were the basic Automatic Warning System (AWS) and a trial version of the more advanced Automatic Train Protection (ATP). However, the AWS was broken and the ATP was switched off because the driver had not been trained how to use it. There was no second driver in the cab. These were not isolated or individual mistakes, but were commonly understood as part of a systemic failure of safety management. A prosecution of GWT for manslaughter, relying on the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter, failed because there were insurmountable difficulties in finding one senior person in the company who had sufficient knowledge for grossly negligent culpability to be demonstrated.

The modest number of successful convictions for corporate manslaughter that occurred invariably involved failures in a small company where it was possible to identify which individuals were responsible for its health and safety obligations. In contrast with larger organisations, the managing directors or equivalent in smaller organisations are generally much more closely involved in the day-to-day running of the business. The reality is that it is harder for the manager(s) in a smaller company to disavow knowledge of serious irregularities in the adherence by the company to its health and safety policy, as there is a much more limited pool of possible ‘controlling minds’.

Case study: the Lyme Bay canoeing disaster

In November 1994 the canoe hire company OLL Ltd and its managing director, Peter Kite, were convicted of the manslaughter of four students who had died during a canoeing trip in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in March 1993. The school group was accompanied by a school teacher and two unqualified instructors. Those instructors had only basic proficiency skills in canoeing. The canoes capsized frequently and the group was swept out to sea. The canoeing centre which OLL Ltd ran had failed to provide distress flares and had not informed the coastguard of the expedition. Two instructors from the centre had resigned a year earlier in protest at poor safety conditions. The risks were serious and obvious.

Only two people in the company had management responsibility, so the ‘controlling mind’ was easily identified.

Mr Kite was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, in the event reduced to two years on appeal. The company was fined £60,000.

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