Baldwins Crane Hire has become the first firm to be charged with corporate manslaughter where a company driver was killed.
Lindsay Easton was driving a heavy crane down a steep road away from a wind farm at Scout Moor, Lancashire, when the vehicle crashed into an earth bank and fell from the road.
It is alleged that the brakes failed.
After reviewing the evidence gathered by Lancashire Police and the Health and Safety Executive during their investigation into the death of Easton, Jane Wragg, specialist prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said: “I have concluded that Baldwins Crane Hire should be charged with an offence of corporate manslaughter.
“I have also concluded that there is sufficient evidence to charge the company Baldwins Crane Hire with offences under Section 2 and Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.”
Wragg explained that she believed there was sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction and that a prosecution is in the public interest. The case is listed for trial in October.
Eight companies have been convicted under corporate manslaughter legislation, since it was first introduced in April, 2008. Two organisations have been acquitted, while a further four companies, including Baldwins Crane Hire, are awaiting trial.
Julia Messervy-Whiting, a partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, said: “There has been a surprising lack of convictions under the Act and only one of those resulted in the minimum £500,000 anticipated by the guidelines.”
Recent cases have seen fines ranging from £20,000 to £200,000, while publicity orders, where an organisation must advertise its failings through a public notice in the press, have only been ordered in two cases.
Messervy-Whiting said: “Prosecutors have faced quite a lot of criticism for failing to make more of what was considered to be landmark legislation.”
As a consequence, the CPS is now pursuing more cases year-on-year and the trend is set to continue, she suggested.
“It’s in this context that companies and their insurers shouldn’t dismiss the risk of prosecution,” she said.
New sentencing guidelines are also expected to be introduced in the next few weeks, which will see much tougher sanctions imposed for breaches of corporate manslaughter and health and safety legislation.
Messervy-Whiting explained: “It’s been suggested that one of the reasons for these new guidelines is public unease about the low levels of fines imposed in some cases.”
In fact, when Michael Caplan QC, announced the consultation on sentencing guidelines in February, he said: “We want to ensure that these crimes don’t pay.
“Our proposals will help a consistent approach to sentencing, allowing fair and proportionate sentences across the board, with some of the most serious offenders facing tougher penalties.”
For the purpose of sentencing, companies will be defined by their turnover as micro, small, medium or large. A micro organisation will have a turnover of no more than £2 million, while a large organisation would have a turnover of £50m and over.
If convicted under corporate manslaughter legislation where there was a high level of culpability, a large organisation would face a fine of between £4.8m and £20m, with a suggested starting point of £7.5m.
A micro organisation found guilty with a lower level of culpability would face a fine of somewhere between £180,000 and £540,000, with a suggested starting point of £300,000, for example.
Meanwhile, companies found guilty under health and safety legislation where a flagrant disregard for the law or deliberate breach is proven would face a fine with a starting point ranging from £250,000 for a micro organisation to £4m for a large company.
Messervy-Whiting concluded: “Even for the lesser health and safety offences, the scope for higher fines is much, much greater and will have a massive effect on organisations found guilty.”