On 8 May 2012 a judgment was issued by Belfast Crown Court in Northern Ireland's first, and the United Kingdom's second, prosecution under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
In this case, JMW Farm Limited, the operator of a pig farm, was charged with causing the death of one of its employees, Mr Wilson, who was killed when a metal bin fell off a forklift truck on top of him. The work which Mr Wilson was undertaking was part of his normal activities but the forklift truck which was being used at the time of his death was a replacement for the normal truck which was away being serviced.
The company pled guilty and in passing sentence the Recorder of Belfast, His Honour Judge Burgess, said "Yet again the Court is faced with an incident where common sense would have shown that a simple, reasonable and effective solution would have been available to prevent this tragedy."
In passing sentence His Honour Judge Burgess imposed the highest ever fine in the history of Health & Safety Law in Northern Ireland. The Recorder said that, in his opinion, the appropriate fine would have been £250,000 but he reduced that by 25% to reflect the early plea of guilty. He therefore imposed a fine of £187,500 together with the costs of the prosecution which amounted to £13,000. The company was given six months to pay the fine and the costs.
What is interesting in this case is that despite the fact that His Honour Judge Burgess indicated that he had been guided in reaching the level of the fine by the Sentencing Guidelines issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in England and Wales, the fine that he imposed was significantly less than is suggested in those Guidelines where it is said "The appropriate fine will seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds."
Despite the fact that the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 has now been in force for a little over four years, this is only the second prosecution in terms of it. As a result of this, there remains a degree of uncertainty as to how far the Court will be willing to go in imposing substantial and significant fines in relation to the death of an employee. In both this case and the previous one, the prosecution of Cotswold Geotechnical, the Court imposed a fine at a level significantly lower than the suggested minimum in the Sentencing Guidelines.
Attention will therefore turn with interest to the second prosecution in England involving a charge of Corporate Manslaughter against Lion Steel Equipment. That case is set to go to trial in June of this year and the outcome of that, and the fine imposed, may give us some further clarity regarding the real level of fines which can be expected in the event of successful Corporate Manslaughter or Corporate Homicide prosecutions.
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This briefing is written as a general guide only. It is not intended to contain definitive legal advice which should be sought as appropriate in relation to any particular matter.