Belfast Telegraph

Huge fine for first Northern Ireland company guilty in corporate manslaughter case

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

A pig farm company has been fined a record £187,500 after pleading guilty to corporate manslaughter in the first case of its kind in Northern Ireland.

Co Armagh-based JMW Farms was handed the penalty at Belfast Crown Court yesterday over the death of employee Robert Wilson (45) on November 15, 2010.

The father-of-two suffered serious head injuries when a large metal bin, precariously positioned on the prongs of a forklift truck, toppled and fell on him as the vehicle was being reversed.

Company director Mark Wright, a lifelong friend of the deceased, was driving the forklift.

A PSNI and Health and Safety Executive (NI) investigation found that the bin had not been attached or integrated with the forklift, a replacement vehicle on loan while the usual truck was being serviced.

Belfast Recorder Judge Tom Burgess said: “Yet again the court is faced with an incident where common sense would have shown that a simple, reasonable and effective solution would have been available to prevent this tragedy.”

Defence barrister Turlough Montague QC said the company, which had an annual turnover in excess of £1m in 2011, was established from small beginnings by Mark Wright and his brother when they were aged 14. The court heard how Mr Wilson had been a school friend of Mark Wright, that the pair socialised together every weekend, and despite the tragedy there was still a “close bond” between the two families.

Mr Montague said that while the company accepted responsibility, it should be viewed “as an aberration” caused by a series of events.

“This was not a cost-cutting exercise,” said the barrister. “The defendant company has a good health and safety record. There have been strenuous efforts to re-appraise health and safety policy and practice in all workplaces to ensure there is no repetition.”

The case was the first successful prosecution for corporate manslaughter here.

Judge Burgess hoped that the hefty fine — the largest ever for a work-related death — would “send a message” to all employers.

“The very definition of the offence of corporate manslaughter is an acceptance of a gross breach of duty,” said the judge.

“That is a high and totally unacceptable breach in circumstances where the risks involved were high, with the more than foreseeable likelihood of serious injury or death following if the proper steps were not taken.”

In a statement, Mr Wilson’s mother Margaret and partner Gillian Lockhart said: “We never want this to happen again. Robbie was the heart and soul of the extended family and a good father, son and partner.”

Meanwhile Louis Burns, acting deputy chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive (NI), said: “This case highlights the importance of managing health and safety in the workplace and demonstrates the terrible consequences of not doing so.”

PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Wright said the case should “send a clear message that there is no hiding place for anyone that breaks the law”.

JMW Farms was given six months to pay the fine.

Background

Corporate manslaughter legislation came into effect in Northern Ireland in 2008.

It allows for organisations to be prosecuted more easily when workplace deaths occur. They can be found guilty if serious management failures result in a gross breach of duty of care.

Previous laws meant a company could only be prosecuted for manslaughter if negligence can be traced to a specific manager.

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