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August 19, 2009

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Corporate manslaughter trial of Cotswolds company set for February 2010

The trial of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, the first company to be charged under the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, will start on 23 February 2010.

The date was confirmed yesterday, following a plea and case-management hearing at Bristol Crown Court. The company’s managing director, Peter Eaton, has also been charged with common-law manslaughter and a breach of section 37 of the HSWA 1974. Defence counsel for the parties indicated that, ultimately, not-guilty pleas will be entered by the defendants.

The trial is expected to last between four and six weeks and there are currently 68 prosecution witnesses, of whom around half are likely to be called at trial.

It is not yet known how the prosecution will specifically put its case against either Mr Eaton or the company, but the defendants have requested that this be made clear. It is anticipated that they will be exploring whether the prosecution can prove “senior management” failings as being the cause of the death of junior geologist, Alexander Wright, in September 2008.

Andrew Stokes, head of the safety, health and environmental group at law firm Beachcroft LLP, commented: “While it is hoped that this trial will clarify some points about the impact of the new Corporate Manslaughter Act and how various elements including the ‘senior management’ test will be proven in practice, it is questionable whether this is the right case to test the new law, given the fact that the defendant is a small family business which, arguably, could have been successfully prosecuted under the old common-law manslaughter rules.”

However, Stokes noted that the instruction of Mark Ellison QC — a high-profile barrister in criminal cases — is “illustrative of the importance that is being placed on this first test of the Corporate Manslaughter Act”.

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