Alexander Wright, a junior geologist working for a company called Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, was killed in September 2008 when a pit or trench from which he was taking trial soil samples collapsed on top of him. The company was prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter & Corporate Homicide Act 2007, the first prosecution of a company under that Act (which had recently come into effect, in April 2008).

Under the Act an organisation is guilty of corporate manslaughter if the way in which its activities are managed or organised causes a death and amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care to the person who died. A substantial part of the breach must have been in the way activities were organised by senior management. A conviction can lead to an unlimited fine and guidelines from the Sentencing Advisory Panel have recommended that a fine on conviction under the Act should rarely be less than £500,000, and “may be measured in millions of pounds”.

Given the events leading to the passing of the the Act it is of some note that this first prosecution under it is of a small company – it is understood that Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings had only eight employees. The Act itself was prompted by deficiencies in previous law which had led to the dropping of charges against very large organisations on grounds that the evidence would not be sufficient for a jury to convict under then existing law (notably Network Rail, aka Railtrack, arising from the Hatfield Rail crash in 2000, and Townsend Thoresen after the 1987 capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry).

In June 2009 Stroud magistrates remitted the Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings case to Bristol Crown Court. The trial was due to begin there in August 2009 but was adjourned until February 2010. It was then further adjourned three more times because of the ill-health of a director, Mr Peter Eaton (charges of gross negligence manslaughter and an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act against Mr Eaton were permanently stayed on account of his ill health).

Eventually the trial took place at end January 2011 at Winchester Crown Court. The jury found Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd guilty, finding that the system of digging trial pits used by the company was unnecessarily dangerous and that well-recognised industry guidance had been ignored. The Court imposed a fine of £385,000 but has allowed this to be paid off over ten years (£38,500 a year).

Given the sentencing guidelines noted above that fine may seem modest. However the Court took into account what it referred to as the company’s “parlous financial state” and no doubt recognised, as suggested above, that the thinking behind the Act was directed more at prosecution of big companies than of a small one such as Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd.

Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd is said to be considering an appeal.