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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Should companies face the courts?
Volvo factory
A French importer for Volvo faces manslaughter charges

By BBC News Online's Orla Ryan

As Railtrack is called to account for the actions that led to the Paddington crash, the issue of corporate manslaughter is once more expected to dominate the headlines.

More and more companies are having to account for their role in fatal accidents in the courts.

A French importer for Swedish carmaker Volvo has been placed under formal investigation for manslaughter.

Tobacco manufacturers are dealing with an increasingly litigious public
Tobacco manufacturers are dealing with an increasingly litigious public
Volvo has questioned the allegations, but these cases highlight the difficulty of prosecuting company executives for fatal accidents.

In the UK, the issue has never been far from the headlines, with rail crashes at Selby, Hatfield and Paddington keeping the debate alive in comment and opinion pages, and new tougher laws are expected.

However in the United States a backlash has already begun, as President Bush agrees with big business that the power of individuals to bring litigation against companies should be curtailed.

Tougher laws?


If basically you are naming a director who will carry the can come what may, you are going to have difficulty finding individuals who are happy to take on that responsibility

Michael Roberts, CBI director of business environment
By contrast, in the UK new tougher laws are on the cards and some observers say there could be a proposal for a law as early as this year.

The proposed changes have their critics - but until they become law, people will continue to struggle to get convictions under the current system.

The difficulty in securing a conviction has not deterred the families of victims from pursuing their case.

Earlier this month, a trial date of 5 November was set for the case of Simon Jones.

He was killed as he helped to unload a ship loaded with cobbles at Shoreham Docks, near Brighton, in April 1998.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) originally decided not to take his employer, Dutch-owned Euromin, to court.

But his family won a High Court battle to bring manslaughter charges.

Escaping conviction

The prosecutors in this case will be very much aware of the fact that in the UK only two workplace deaths have resulted in a conviction for corporate manslaughter.

Some companies have famously escaped conviction.

Prosecutors have failed to secure convictions in high-profile cases such as the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the fire at Kings Cross tube station and the Paddington rail crash.

These kind of judicial decisions are likely to influence the CPS when it comes to deciding whether or not to take action in such cases.

So, why is it so difficult to make a charge of corporate manslaughter stick in the UK?

"Controlling mind"

Under current law, a company can only be convicted of corporate manslaughter if someone, identified as the "controlling mind" of the company, can be shown to be guilty of manslaughter.

The company can escape liability if a more junior member of staff is responsible for safety - as they are clearly not a "controlling mind".

This is one of the reasons why the more successful cases have been brought against smaller companies.

"The larger the company and the more distant the director is from the incident in question, it is easier for him to say he didn't know anything about it," a spokesman for the Centre for Corporate Accountability said.

On top of that, when someone has a fatal accident at work, the police are often not immediately involved.

He added: "Police have only just recently started to investigate work-related deaths. It is very much dependent on a particular force as to whether or not the enquiry takes place. It is very sporadic. It is beginning to improve, so there has been no concerted attempt to train police."

New proposals

It should, in theory, be easier to secure a conviction under the proposed changes.

A new offence of corporate killing is intended to make companies accountable in criminal law where they fall far below what can be expected in the circumstances.


The larger the company and the more distant the director is from the incident in question, it is easier for him to say he didn't know anything about it

Centre for Corporate Accountability
An unlimited fine could be imposed on the company and executives could be banned from holding a management role in the UK.

But campaigners argue loopholes will still exist.

Holding companies may create subsidiaries, which would carry out the company's riskier business.

"In our view, there needed to be legal duties imposed on company directors in relation to safety," the Centre for Corporate Accountability spokesman said.

But, as some companies are already aware, this could make recruitment virtually impossible.

"If basically you are naming a director who will carry the can come what may, you are going to have difficulty finding individuals who are happy to take on that responsibility," Michael Roberts, the CBI's director of business environment. said.

The CBI's main criticism of the proposal is that it is unclear what management have to do to avoid prosecution.

"If it is not clear there is a risk, that an accident could have happened, it is unfair to say that that is a legitimate reason that a prosecution could be agreed," he added.

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01 Jun 01 | Business
Volvo firm faces manslaughter probe
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