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February 16, 2011

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Jury returns unanimous verdict in first corporate manslaughter case

The first company to stand trial under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 has been found guilty by the jury at Winchester Crown Court.

The conviction of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd came after a two-week trial at the court, where the company answered charges by the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to the death of employee Alexander Wright in September 2008.

Mr Wright had been working alone in a 3.5m trench after the managing director of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings, Peter Eaton, left for the day. The trench collapsed on Mr Wright and buried him. Despite the efforts of the plot-owners to free him,  the junior geologist died of asphyxiation.

Peter Eaton had originally been charged with manslaughter by gross negligence, as well as a health and safety offence, in his own capacity but these charges were dropped after a successful application by his defence team last October on the grounds of his poor health. The company also originally faced a separate health and safety offence but this was dropped by the prosecution in January this year.

Kevin Bridges, partner at Pinsent Masons, which represented Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings, said: “The company will, over the coming days, consider all of its options, including any potential grounds of appeal. It remains to be seen whether this case has provided any general assistance in the interpretation of what is the most serious offence that a company can commit, and whether it will give rise to wider problems for the CPS in prosecuting this new and controversial legislation in the future.”

On behalf of the company and Peter Eaton, Bridges said they had held Alex Wright “in the highest regard and deeply regret the tragic incident which resulted in the loss of this talented young man”.

Paul Verrico, a solicitor-advocate with Eversheds, said the case is unlikely to be a landmark in terms of a test of the new law, but believes the conviction “will doubtless be hailed by both the CPS and the HSE as a success”.

He added that the physical stress of the process will not have been lost on those holding senior positions. He said: “It is well documented that the managing director [Peter Eaton] has been very ill, in no small part due to the stress of being charged with manslaughter in his own right and the undoubted impact on his business.

“But many questions do remain unanswered – for instance, the question of ‘who is a senior manager?’ We will know more when the company is sentenced and see how the judge will use his sentencing powers.”

The sentence is due to be delivered tomorrow – Thursday, 17 February.

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