First Conviction under British Equivalent of C-45

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The Canadian government enacted Bill C-45 in response to the Westray tragedy. It took effect on March 31, 2004, amending the Canadian Criminal Code to make it possible to hold a company or individual guilty of criminal negligence for failing to meet the duty to protect a person doing work if the failure to protect was the result of wanton or reckless disregard for life or safety and caused death or serious bodily harm to the worker or a person affected by the work.

Canada wasn’t the only country concerned about the ability to hold companies and their executives responsible for serious workplace safety tragedies. For example, the United Kingdom enacted the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act in 2007 to address similar concerns. Previously, a corporate manslaughter prosecution could only be secured based on the conduct of a senior individual within the company. But the new act just requires the company’s activities to have caused the death in a way that falls far below what could reasonably be expected of the company.

The UK just got its first conviction under this law. Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings was fined £385,000 after a worker was killed when a trench collapsed on him. Here’s a look at this case.

Company Convicted in Fatal Trench Collapse

A jury found the firm guilty of failing to ensure the safety of a 27-year-old geologist while he was taking soil samples for a housing development in a 3.8m pit. The trench wasn’t supported by timbers and, as a result, it caved in.

The evidence showed that the company’s director knew about a safety rule dating back to 1981 that said pits more than 1.2m deep should be supported due to the dangers of collapse and death. In fact, a former employee had raised concerns about trenching with the Health and Safety Executive in 2005. The executive contacted the director, who said he would support the trenches but didn’t. Instead, he 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, describing the director as “gravely and culpably mistaken.”

The judge said the fine reflected the gravity of the crime and the deterrent effect it would have on companies to adhere to health and safety guidance. In a statement, the victim’s 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.”