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June 4, 2015

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Farm manager denies manslaughter of apple pickers

A farm manager is on trial for manslaughter after two workers died in an apple storage container on a Conservative peer’s country estate on February 18, 2013.

Scott Cain, 23, and Ashley Clarke, 24, were discovered unconscious in an apple store on the 2,500 acre property owned by the Earl of Selborne, John Palmer.

Mr Cain was told by farm manager Andrew Stocker, 57, to enter the cooler, which had an atmosphere of just 1 per cent oxygen, to select apples while holding his breath, Winchester Crown Court has heard.

The process of entering the unit without breathing apparatus was known as ‘scuba diving’ among workers at the Blackmoor Estate in Hampshire.

The court hear that the workers were hand-picking the best apples so they could be entered into the Marden Fruit Show in West Malling, Kent.

Jurors heard that the cooler was kept cold using nitrogen, which meant the atmosphere contained just 1 per cent oxygen, below the 21 per cent needed for people to breathe normally.

The court heard that the approved and safe method of using a metal hook to retrieve the apples was not deemed ‘adequate’ by Mr Stocker, as the fruit needed to be a particular size for the show.

Mark Dennis, QC, prosecuting, told the court that on the day of the fatalities Mr Stocker had arrived in the Maldives for the start of a holiday.

Dennis said: “However, three days earlier he had given instructions that an employee should gather samples for the forthcoming fruit show, which had to be delivered to the show’s organisers by the Wednesday and he instructed Scott Cain to take the lead on gathering the samples, leaving Scott to raise a companion to assist him.”

He continued that Stocker encouraged the practice of gathering the samples, despite being aware of the risks, “In so acting, he breached his duty of care to the two young men who died and his breach amounted to gross negligence and that directly led to the tragic loss of two lives.”

Mr Dennis said: “Stocker allowed bad practice and ‘scuba diving’ to flourish at the pack house and the risky practice was being used with his full approval. Breathing apparatus should have been used even when using the approved method involving a hook to inspect the fruit.”

The court was told that Mr Cain would take a deep breath before entering the container to retrieve ten apples each time. On the day of the fatalities, Mr Cain was trying to find a partner to help him retrieve a sample of apples and Mr Clarke was the only person available.

Both workers were found lying motionless on top of the apple boxes. Despite colleagues trying to save Mr Cain and Mr Clarke, they were pronounced dead at the scene.

The court heard that Mr Stocker gave a statement to police claiming that the ‘scuba diving’ technique was ‘a safe method of gathering the samples for the Marden Fruit Show’.

Mr Dennis added: “The defendant cannot try to shift the blame for what happened on this fateful day or his responsibility for the dangerous practices on to the company or anyone else’s shoulders.

“The death of these two men was not the fault of the company, this was the fault of the defendant as the head of the pack house department who allowed a dangerous practice to develop and continue.

Andrew Stocker denies the charges, and the trial continues.


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