Home's owners fined over OAP death
The owners of a care home where safety blunders led to a 91-year-old resident freezing to death in a garden have been fined £133,000.
Abele View Ltd, which ran the home near Stourbridge, West Midlands, was also ordered to pay £122,412 in costs after admitting failures which caused the death of dementia sufferer Hilda Fairweather.
The pensioner, who was known to be restless at night and prone to wandering off, died of hypothermia in January 2009 after leaving the Abele View care home unnoticed.
Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court heard that just two staff were looking after 29 residents when Mrs Fairweather was "overlooked completely" until almost 12 hours after her disappearance.
A member of staff at the home in Iverley, south Staffordshire, found the fire exit Mrs Fairweather had walked through ajar shortly after she disappeared into its "pitch-black" grounds, the court heard.
But a head count - which would have taken seven minutes - was not carried out, and no scheduled checks on Mrs Fairweather were conducted during the night.
Abele View Ltd pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to failing to ensure the safety of its residents and making an insufficient risk assessment.
Opening the facts of the case to Judge David Fletcher, prosecutor Bernard Thorogood said the safety breaches at the isolated building were committed despite numerous previous incidents in which confused residents had absconded.
Mrs Fairweather, originally from Kidderminster, was last seen by staff at 7.30pm on January 29 2009, and was found dead at 7.45am the following day.
Mr Thorogood told the court: "In the intervening time she should have been put to bed, and she should have been checked for other purposes through the night."
Records which should have shown the scheduled checks were missing, said Mr Thorogood, who outlined 18 instances of "accepted criminality" on behalf of Abele View.
As well as accepting that its failures had a causal connection to Mrs Fairweather's death, Abele View also acknowledges it had inadequate staffing levels, and that risks were created by poor supervision and management.
Previous instances in which residents were allowed to wander off represented a series of wake-up calls for the home and its management, Mr Thorogood said.
Outlining how Mrs Fairweather's absence went unnoticed, Mr Thorogood told the court: "The sad and deeply unattractive facts are that she had frozen to death outside the home on a freezing night in January when she should not have been able to get out.
"For a variety of reasons she should have had substantial contact with the staff through the night."
The court was told a "wave of an accountant's wand" in September 2011 reduced Abele View Ltd from a thriving company with total assets of £1.3 million to a valueless shell with just £100.
Prosecutors believe the move was simply an attempt to present Abele View to the court as having "empty pockets".
But Ronald Walker QC said the company emphatically denied the restructuring was an attempt to avoid a future fine, claiming its management was then unaware of any impending prosecution.
Since the death, Mr Walker said, the operator of Abele View had altered its procedures, alarmed external doors, erected new fencing, and upgraded external lighting.
Offering mitigation for the safety breaches, the QC also confirmed that an ex-Care Quality Commission inspector now conducted unannounced visits on behalf of the firm's parent group.
"This dreadful accident was undoubtedly caused by sloppy procedures, but it wasn't a case of deliberate risk-taking," the barrister said.
Passing sentence, Judge Fletcher said: "There is no question that this is a serious case with a number of failings creating a significant risk over a period of time.
"It's clear on the basis of all the information I have (that) serious injury was clearly foreseeable in the circumstances of this case.
"It's clear that this was not just a failure of the staff present on the night. The defendant company fell very short of the applicable standard of care in terms of safety procedures."
Commenting on the financial position of the company, Judge Fletcher said it was "somewhat disconcerting" that it had chosen to restructure when criminal proceedings were almost inevitable.
South Staffordshire District Council brought the case against the home under health and safety legislation after the Crown Prosecution Service opted not to bring proceedings in 2011 following a police inquiry.
The local authority's director of legal and public health protection David Pattison said after the hearing: "This is a tragic incident which should never have happened.
"South Staffordshire Council were determined to ensure that the owners took full responsibility for their actions.
"We have got a duty to protect the rights of local residents and the general public and bring those to account who fail in their duty to prevent them coming to harm."
Mrs Fairweather's son, Roger Fairweather, said he hoped the end of the proceedings would bring some closure for his family.
The 65-year-old, from Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, said: "We are satisfied with the outcome.
"My mother died in 2009 and it is only now that we are able to come to court and see the directors of Abele View take responsibility for their actions.
"In future I would like to see these sorts of cases progressing at a much quicker pace so those responsible understand the full ramifications of their actions.
"I hope in some way that this case will help to prevent what happened to my mother happening to anyone else."
Abele View was given 28 days by the court to pay the fine, imposed on two separate counts.