Holdings has become the first company to be convicted of the new offence of corporate manslaughter. The company has been fined £385,000 – less than suggested by the Sentencing Guidelines Council but still a huge sum for a small company.
Alex Wright was 27-years-old when he died on 5 September 2008. He was a geologist for Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings and was investigating soil conditions in a deep trench on a development plot in Stroud when it collapsed and killed him.
Kate Leonard, reviewing lawyer from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) Special Crime Division, said:
“Alex Wright was a young man, full of promise. His death is a tragedy for all those who loved him and would never have happened if Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings had properly protected him.
The CPS told the court that Mr Wright was left working alone in the 3.5 metre-deep trench to ‘finish-up’ when the company director left for the day. The two people who owned the development plot decided to stay at the site as they knew Mr Wright was working alone in the trench. About 15 minutes later they heard a muffled noise and then a shout for help.
While one of the plot-owners called the emergency services, the other one ran to the trench where he saw that a surge of soil had fallen in and buried Mr Wright up to his head. He climbed into the trench and removed some of the soil to enable Mr Wright to breathe. At that point, more earth fell so quickly into the pit that it covered Mr Wright completely and, despite the plot owners best efforts, Mr Wright died of traumatic asphyxiation.
The prosecution’s case was that Mr Wright was working in a dangerous trench because Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings’ systems had failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect him from working in that way. In convicting the company, the jury found that their system of work in digging trial pits was wholly and unnecessarily dangerous. The company ignored well-recognised industry guidance that prohibited entry into excavations more than 1.2 metres deep, requiring junior employees to enter into and work in unsupported trial pits, typically from 2 to 3.5 metres deep. Mr Wright was working in just such a pit when he died.
There was no person in the dock during the three-week trial as it is the company, rather than an individual, which is charged with corporate manslaughter.
The case was investigated by Gloucestershire Constabulary and supported by the Health and Safety Executive.