Family welcome apple deaths verdict
The family of a man who died while collecting apples from an oxygen deprived storage unit for a fruit competition have welcomed the verdict of a jury who found the manager guilty of the manslaughter of their son and of a colleague.
Andrew Stocker, 57, of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, Hampshire, was convicted at Winchester Crown Court over the deaths of two employees at the Blackmoor Estate in Liss, owned by Tory peer Lord Selborne, by ignoring health and safety regulations through encouraging staff to use the "dangerous" practice of "scuba-diving".
This involved the workers entering the storage unit, which only has 1% oxygen, through a hatch on the roof, holding their breath as they balanced on crates of apples stacked high, and ducking in to collect the best samples to enter the Marden Fruit Show in Kent.
Scott Cain, 23, who was engaged to be married to the mother of his young child, and Ashley Clarke, 24, who was also engaged, were both found unconscious in one of the storage facilities on the afternoon of Monday February 18 2013.
Efforts by colleagues and paramedics to revive them were unsuccessful and both were declared dead at the scene.
Speaking after the hearing, Mr Clarke's father, Ian Clarke, from Emsworth, said Stocker's actions had been "beyond belief".
The 58-year-old company director said: "We're really pleased, and thanks to the jury.
"It has been really, really hard. We have had no closure - it's been two years and four months."
He added: "My wife has not been mentally strong since this happened. We will never forget him and we just try to manage the pain for the rest of our lives.
"The formal stage is over, we can begin to rebuild."
Mr Clarke said: "The Saturday before we had just booked the wedding, they were off to the Maldives to get married, booked the suits, what we were going to eat on the BBQ on the beach."
Speaking of Stocker, he said: "We are quite upset that someone could put someone's lives at risk to collect apples for a competition. For me, it doesn't make sense, it's beyond belief.
"I do not think he's a bad man but he's left us without a son."
Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting, told the trial that Stocker, who was on holiday in the Maldives at the time of the incident, had instructed Mr Cain to gather the sample fruit while he was away to be entered in the Marden Fruit Show, held twice a year .
He said Stocker enjoyed the "kudos" of winning at the contest rather than claiming the "modest" financial prizes.
He said Stocker encouraged the practice nicknamed "scuba diving" which involved staff entering the storage units through a hatch in the roof and holding their breath while they ducked inside in the cramped conditions to retrieve the fruit samples.
Mr Dennis said the air in the sealed units had oxygen levels reduced to 1% for the long-term preservation of the fruit and a person would die immediately after they ran out of breath while in the facility.
Mr Dennis said that, despite being aware of the risks, he encouraged the practice and added: "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."
He said the accepted practice in the industry for gathering samples was to use a net to hook out the fruit but this random selection was not suitable for selecting apples of the right size to be entered for competitions.
He added: "Andrew Stocker was a keen participant in this competition and took pride in his entries.
"Financial prizes were very modest; however, it was the kudos of winning that was more important.
"The defendant knew that the only way the best samples could be gathered is for someone to enter from the top hatch and make a selection of fruit."
Blackmoor Estate Ltd entered guilty pleas at an earlier hearing to three counts of contravening regulations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and not guilty to a fourth.
The charges relate to failing to provide adequate emergency plans and carrying insufficient risk assessments.
The jury of 11 men and one woman took more than 18 hours to reach its verdicts which the foreman said were both reached by a majority of 11 to one.
Mr Justice Akenhead adjourned the case against Stocker and the estate for sentence on July 1 and he warned Stocker, who was released on bail until then, that he was considering all options including imprisonment.
The judge said he would prepare notes on the case to be forwarded to the fruit packing industry "to make sure these very sad events do not occur again if at all possible. I think it's possible the apple and fruit storage industry to an extent is not aware of some of the dangers this case has thrown up in such stark form".
He added: "I and everyone in this court understand the intense sadness and distress for the families of Scott Cain and Ashley Clarke, particularly Filipa Turner, (fiancee of Mr Cain) and Rachel Higgins (partner of Mr Clarke) who were present on that tragic day.
"Filipa and Rachel, from everything I saw, gave their evidence with great dignity in what must have been very difficult circumstances.
"I extend my sincere condolences to you all."
In a statement released by Mr Clarke and his wife Sharon, they said: "We cannot bring Ashley back and nearly two and a half years on the pain of his loss has not diminished.
"We miss everything about him, his contagious humour, his passion and most of all his love.
"Together with his brothers, James and Simon, he was at the very centre of our family and will always be in our hearts.
"Mr Stocker must now await his sentence and whilst we recognise he is not a bad man and did not mean to harm Ashley, his negligent actions led to his death.
"He therefore needs to remember that whatever his sentence, he will eventually be back with his family and be able to rebuild his life, we as a family however will be serving a life sentence as we try to come to terms with the loss of a son and brother who we shall never see again."
Detective Sergeant Rich Sellwood, of Hampshire police, said: "This was an extremely tragic case resulting in the completely avoidable deaths of two young men. "It is a tragedy for all involved. We hope that lessons will be learned that prevent this from ever happening again."
Piers Arnold, specialist prosecutor at the CPS, said: "This is a tragic case involving two young men, workers on an apple farm in Hampshire, who died of asphyxiation after being sent into an apple storage tank with very low levels of oxygen in order to gather apples for a fruit competition.
"No breathing apparatus was provided to the men, who were expected to hold their breath in the hope that they would not succumb to oxygen deprivation.
"Mr Stocker was in charge of the pack house where the two men worked and was responsible for encouraging this method of collecting apples. He has today been found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter for the part he played in their deaths."