On 27 January 2017, in a case that sums up all that can go wrong when businesses and maintenance providers who do not and will not comply with their safety responsibilities; a road transport operator, Matthew Gordon, and his self-employed maintenance provider, Peter Wood, were jailed for gross negligence manslaughter for seven and a half years, and five years, three months respectively.
The circumstances are a salutary tale that should prompt every operator to review management and maintenance procedures.
Of the owner, the Judge said: “A sentence of imprisonment is unavoidable. It was an accident waiting to happen. It was part and parcel of the way he ran his business… the brakes were in appallingly bad condition.”
To Wood, the Judge said: “The defects were staring you in the face... you were cavalier about the safety of the lorries... and you were happy to sign off the safety of a vehicle without proper brake checks.”
The brake failure was “foreseeable” and hence avoidable. The Judge pointed out that Gordon exposing his driver, Potter, to the horror of killing four people, and the four deaths themselves, made the gross negligence an aggravated case.
Potter was also disqualified him from acting as a company director for 12 years.
“This sort of catastrophic brake failure does not just happen through bad luck. This was entirely predictable, the result of poor management and the disregard for the rules and the failure to comply with routine guidelines. It was, put simply, an accident waiting to happen.”
These were the Prosecution's opening remarks to the jury in the 23-day trial, ultimately leading to the manslaughter convictions of the operator and the fitter.
The tragic incident occurred in Bath on 9 February 2015 when a 32-tonne tipper carrying 20 tonnes of aggregate driven by Philip Potter could not be stopped as it careered down a steep hill in Bath. The brakes failed. Four members of the public died and others were seriously injured. The operator, Matthew Gordon t/a Grittenham Haulage, driving a separate lorry ignored two road restrictions and his employee driver followed him.
The jury was told of the findings of a major investigation that followed conducted by police and forensic experts. This revealed serious shortcomings in the supervision and conduct of fleet maintenance and, in particular, the vehicle that caused the fatalities:
- The lorry had been inspected three weeks earlier. Major brake issues must have been present but went unactioned and undocumented. There was little written evidence of repair work generally. No brake roller testing was carried out.
- The driver stated he had repeatedly seen an ABS warning light, but had been told to ignore it by the operator.
- Experts found “serious and longstanding defects” on the lorry brakes. The accident diagnosis was brake fade/failure on six of the eight wheels. Anchor plates were incorrectly fitted, slack adjustor brackets were damaged, six out of eight slack adjuster settings were wrong. They described axles as ‘immensely worn’, ‘a very messy repair’, ‘very dirty and rusty’ or a ‘bodge job’. The braking efficiency of the vehicle on the day of the accident was only 28%. Four hours after the incident, one brake recorded 62C.
As a result, three defendants were charged with offences in two areas: a) vehicle condition (operator and fitter) and b) standard of driving (operator and driver).
Gross negligence manslaughter
The operator and the fitter, Wood, faced gross negligence manslaughter charges for each death. The Prosecution case was put on the basis that the operator and fitter conducted themselves with ‘a criminal neglect to safety’. One of the expert witnesses said, ‘if the brakes had been serviceable then the incident could readily have been avoided.’
In order to succeed, the Prosecution had to prove against Gordon and Wood a duty of care in relation to the safety of the vehicle, that they breached that duty, and that the breach caused the deaths. The Trial Judge said this had to be the result of “gross” negligence so serious as to amount to a “a crime against the state”.
The Prosecution did not face any complicated management structure in which it can sometimes be hard to identify the controlling mind of the business. This was a small business (NB. contrasting this, the offence of corporate manslaughter was in part designed to enable prosecution of companies and organisations with more complex hierarchies for serious failings leading to death).
Dangerous/careless driving causing death
The charges against Gordon and Potter were causing death by dangerous driving or causing death by careless driving, and of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. To secure convictions, the Prosecution had to prove the drivers drove dangerously (i.e. far below the standard of a competent and careful driver, or carelessly).
Though any driver can be guilty of dangerous driving on the basis of the condition of the vehicle, the Prosecution did not suggest the driver of the defective lorry could have been aware of the adverse condition of the braking system. The Prosecution put its case on the basis that the driving itself was dangerous for various reasons, including the ignoring of a 6ft width restriction, and a prohibited right turn. Potter said he saw the width restriction but ignored it as his boss had done so.
The Judge told the jury that they had to be certain that the manner of driving caused the deaths and injuries to find either man guilty of the charges.
After 23 trial days, the jury convicted Gordon and Wood of four counts of gross negligence. Gordon and Potter were found not guilty of all driving-related charges.
This type of case is, thankfully, rare. The Prosecution asserted this was a bad operator and maintenance provider, and it is complacency in systems that can be the undoing of a business.
A specific issue here is the relationship between management and maintenance provider. In the trial, the jury also heard evidence that there is no statutory requirement that maintenance providers have to possess particular qualifications, but that by law operators have to ensure vehicles are safe. Indeed, this is the case. The prompt for operators here therefore is to ask themselves what is being done to supervise and audit maintenance staff, whether in-house or external, to ensure work is not going undone, leading to the sort of consequences seen in this case. This can only be done by thorough monitoring and auditing.