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Farm Fatality Leads to Manslaughter Conviction

Posted on 30th March, 2021

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has highlighted the dangers of poor electrical safety following the conviction of a farmer for gross negligence manslaughter at Warwick Crown Court in December 2020.  The warning comes after a woman died from electrocution while cooking food in a farm caravan.

In 2017, Deana Simpson was using a cooker which was poorly insulated and connected at a caravan in Willoughby Farm, near Rugby in Warwickshire.  She shared the caravan with James Atkins, the son of the farmer, Trevor Atkins, who owned the farm at Willoughby fields.  James Atkins found Deana collapsed in the caravan from an electric shock and he also received an electric shock when he touched the cooker.

The investigation into the incident was undertaken by Warwickshire Police assisted by the HSE.  During the investigation into the death, it was established that the generator had been modified several weeks earlier by James Atkins, who was not a qualified electrician. He had fitted a new invertor, despite being told the work needed to be done by a qualified electrician.

Five days after the incident, a qualified electrician examined the electrical installation at the scene and found it was in a poor and dangerous condition. The potential for an electric shock was immediately obvious, with poor and incorrect connections, inadequate earthing and no protective devices in place, as was required by manufacturer’s instructions.

Amy Kalay, HM Principal Inspector of health and safety, who managed HSE’s involvement in the case, said the case has highlighted the severe risks that can arise when farm equipment and buildings are poorly maintained.

Amy said: “This was a completely avoidable and foreseeable incident. Deana was killed because work on an electrical system hadn’t been done by a professional electrician with the right skills and experience.”

James Atkins was sentenced for gross negligence manslaughter receiving six years and six months in prison and his father, Trevor Atkins, was sentenced for charges under Section 3 of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. He received a 10-month prison sentence, suspended for two years.

Gross Negligence Manslaughter

Allegations of manslaughter which fall into work-related deaths are commonly referred to as “involuntary manslaughter” because there is no intention to kill or to cause serious injury, but the law considers that the person who caused the death is blameworthy in some other way. Within the category of “involuntary manslaughter” is a type of manslaughter known as manslaughter by gross negligence, and it is this which will normally be relevant to work-related deaths.

Gross negligence manslaughter is a common law offence, and the test was established in the case of R v Adomako. In prosecuting for the offence, the police must establish four essential elements:

  1. the defendant owed a duty of care towards the deceased; and,
  2. the defendant breached that duty of care; and,
  3. the breach caused or significantly contributed to the death; and,
  4. the breach should be characterised as gross negligence and therefore a crime.

In terms of a duty of care, the police will consider whether an individual employee, manager or director in a company owed a duty of care to the deceased. If a duty of care is established, then the court must be satisfied that the duty is breached by the individual employee, manager or director because they failed to act as a reasonable person would in their position.  Where the individual has acted within the range of what was generally accepted as being the standard practice (even if it is at the lower end) it will be difficult to describe such behaviour as falling far below the standard of a reasonable person in that position.

In determining whether the breach of duty was gross negligence, a jury must consider if the defendant’s conduct was so bad, in all the circumstances, as to amount to a criminal act or omission.  Finally, the breach of duty must have caused the death.

Comment

The offence of gross negligence manslaughter is serious and often leads to a custodial sentence for the individual.  It is important that those operating farms and other agricultural businesses ensure that electrical and other equipment is maintained and safe to use.  When contracting for maintenance and other work to be carried out, checks should be undertaken to confirm that the contractor is competent to do the work, especially with specialist work such as electrical installations.

Regular checks should be carried out which will confirm whether the maintenance schedule is effective and appropriate for the particular operation.  Where the checks identify deficiencies, the maintenance plan should be reviewed and updated.  Records of maintenance tasks, checks and other work should be kept illustrating effective management of risks on the farm.

If you require legal advice for your farm operations, please contact one of the Jacksons’ agricultural specialists.

Mark Stouph, H&S Consultant

 

 

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