A recent decision of the House of Lords may have far-reaching consequences for employers, especially those tempted to cut corners regarding health and safety. The Lords ruled that employers may be prosecuted over an accidental death at work, even in cases where no specific breach of health and safety legislation can be identified as having caused it.
The case concerned Mr Shaun Riley and was brought against Chargot Ltd., Ruttle Contracting Ltd. and Mr George Ruttle, a director of both companies.
Ruttle Contracting was engaged to undertake extensive earth works on a Lancashire farm belonging to Chargot. Mr Riley was employed to drive a dumper truck, moving spoils from the excavation to another part of the site. While he was doing this, the truck overturned, burying Mr Riley, who later died in hospital.
Investigations revealed that there were various health and safety failings. However, there being no witness to the accident, the exact cause could not be established. The defendants argued that since the precise cause of the accident could not be shown, they were not liable for Mr Riley’s death.
The prosecution argued that it was not necessary to show exactly how the defendants had failed in their health and safety obligations, merely that the general state of affairs at the place of work led to a risk of injury. The House of Lords accepted this argument. In its view, the failure on the part of the three defendants breached sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Fines and costs orders of more than £450,000 made against the defendants were confirmed.