A life behind bars

Tuesday 9th April 2013

From a haulier in Ipswich to a rugby club fireworks display manager in Taunton, recent history has demonstrated that no matter what your business or background, if you fail to ensure people’s safety and that failure results in death, you are highly likely to be charged with gross negligence manslaughter.

If convicted you face up to life in prison.

So what is gross negligence manslaughter, how has it been applied, and what should you do to avoid prosecution?

The Crown Prosecution Service, having reviewed the Police investigation and the Health and Safety Executive investigation which often accompanies it, will have to decide prior to charging a defendant as to whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.  Given that a death will always be in the public interest to prosecute, any investigation conducted will scrutinise the actions of those involved or responsible for the death and whether any of the people involved were negligent.

The question the Court will have to ask itself is, “was the defendant in breach of a duty of care towards the victim?”  If that is established then Court has to ask itself “was that breach of a duty of care the cause of the death of the victim and if so can it be categorised as grossly negligent?”  If so then a conviction will follow.


In November 2011 a fireworks display was held at Taunton Rugby Club.  The rugby club is adjacent to the M5 motorway where a massive road traffic accident took place.  7 people died and 51 people were injured after 34 vehicles crashed.  At the time poor visibility was blamed as a result of the smoke from the fireworks display being blown across the motorway.  Geoffrey Counsell, the display organiser, was arrested and charged with gross negligence manslaughter.  However, at the beginning of the trial the Crown Prosecution Service withdrew the charges following a further review of the evidence.  Now Mr Counsell faces a further prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr Counsell’s case serves as a warning that even if eventually the trial does not proceed, the process of being arrested, charged, and thrust into the glare of the media will still take place, and can in itself be an overwhelming experience.

However, it is the case of Paul Napier, a haulier and lorry owner that should make all businesses take heed of their responsibilities.  As a result of failures to follow rules for undertaking a safe lifting operation, using the correct equipment and keeping people clear of dangerous areas, two people were crushed when the lorry tipped over because its stabilising legs had not been properly extended.  One person died and the other received serious injuries.

Paul Napier was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and will be sentenced on 17 May 2013.  His duty of care was not discharged properly as an employer and person of responsibility and it is highly likely he will face a custodial sentence in May.


The difficult economic climate in which businesses now operate means that every penny counts and that time is money.  However, cutting corners to save money, failing to ensure that work is undertaken safely, failing to ensure that jobs are properly planned, risk assessed and safe systems of work put in place and failing to ensure adequate training is given to staff can result in tragic accidents with very serious consequences for those ultimately found to have had a duty of care to the victim which they have breached.

Want to know more about your obligations or worried that your business may not be compliant?  Call our Regulation and Business Crime team who can help.