In a recent case handled by DWF, a jury at Norwich Crown Court returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty in the first acquittal for the offence of corporate manslaughter since the new law came into force in 2008.
The legislation states that an organisation or business is guilty of the offence of corporate manslaughter if the way in which it conducts or organises its activities causes a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of duty of care of which senior management failures are a substantial element.
Like any business, healthcare organisations are vulnerable to investigation for corporate manslaughter where a patient or member of the public is killed in connection with its activities due to senior management failings. When sentencing Mid-Staffordshire Trust for failures which led to the death of a patient, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave made it clear that those failings lay with senior management. The Trust was perhaps fortunate therefore not to have been prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.
Each and every case turns on its own facts, and prosecuting authorities make charging decisions based on both evidential and public interest criteria, but it is always worth remembering that very few criminal prosecutions are open and shut cases and that in corporate manslaughter, unlike health and safety, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. Ultimately it is the jury which determines guilt.
Case background - first acquittal for the offence of Corporate Manslaughter since the new law came into force in 2008.
This case involved a Norfolk based horticultural business where an employee was tragically killed by electrocution in 2010 when a trailer being towed by a tractor he was driving came into contact with an overhead power line.
The business was prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and also faced a single alternative count under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 of failing to ensure so far as reasonably possible the safety of an employee in the workplace.
Much of the evidence at trial concerned issues of causation (intervening acts and omissions) which forms an essential ingredient of the corporate manslaughter offence.
The trial and sentencing
After a twelve day trial, the company was acquitted of corporate manslaughter but convicted of the health and safety offence.
To date, companies charged with corporate manslaughter have either pleaded guilty because of the weight of the evidence or (in one instance) been found guilty after a trial.
The outcome of this trial shows that the corporate killing laws, which unlike health and safety laws are investigated by the police and prosecuted by the CPS, can be successfully defended.
Sentencing guidelines indicate that a an organisation found guilty can be fined out of business with the starting point for fines being £500,000.
The DWF defence team comprised of Rupert Nevin, Vikki Woodfine and Laura Wilmshurst of the firm's national Regulatory team. The company was also represented at trial by Graham Trembath QC and Miles Bennett of 5 Paper Buildings.
Sentencing took place on 6 June at Norwich Crown Court - please read 'DWF delivers a unique result in Norwich County Court Corporate Manslaughter.'
DWF guidance, training and audit services for the healthcare sector
Any healthcare organisation - public or private - would be wise to make sure that at a senior management level it is making sure that patients and the public are safe.
DWF provides guidance, training and audit services in health and safety to the healthcare sector. Our unique insight for healthcare directors and executives into where things go wrong and how cases turn on evidence could be valuable to your organisation.
This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.