It’s a rare occurrence in the business world, but corporate manslaughter is a serious threat to organisations that fall short of safety requirements, and any managers who may end up caught up in the legal fight.
Here’s what you should know.
A guide to corporate manslaughter
Corporate manslaughter is a criminal office where the actions (or inaction) of a company lead to a person’s death in some verifiable way.
Corporate manslaughter examples
- A geotechnical company in England was held responsible for the death of a young geologist, examining soil in a trench during a day of fieldwork. The trench collapsed and killed him.
- A farm employee in Northern Ireland was struck by a metal bin which fell from the raised forks of a forklift truck. He died as a result of his injuries. The farming company attached to the site was handed a six-figure fine.
- During a water sports birthday celebration in England, a young girl fell from a moving banana boat and was subsequently hit and killed by the vessel that was towing it. The vessel made a sharp turn towards her because the driver was unaware anyone had fallen into the water. The sporting club running the party landed a six-figure fine.
Corporate manslaughter is quite a subjective crime, being very dependent on how exactly the death came about, and how the company in question mishandled the events leading up to it. Every case is different, and will usually be subject to extensive legal analysis to determine culpability.
Who is held responsible in corporate killing cases?
This depends on the jurisdiction and individual case, but in general, the corporation as a whole is the entity facing the legal challenge, and not the people working within it.
However, it’s important to remember that individuals connected to any corporate manslaughter incidents can still be charged separately in a personal capacity.
Where is it a crime?
This is complicated. The first point to note is that many jurisdictions don’t have specific laws to deal with corporate manslaughter. As a result, the extent to which a company is legally vulnerable in these areas is limited.
The United States is a good example of this. There is no federal legislation in place to cover corporate manslaughter. Companies can only be held responsible in limited circumstances, meaning it depends far heavier on the nature of the case.
Jurisdictions with extensive corporate manslaughter legislation include the UK (specifically England and Wales), Hong Kong, Canada, France and Australia.
What should boards and management know about corporate manslaughter?
The short answer is “a lot”.
These cases will almost always place at least some legal burden on senior figures within a company. CEOs, the team of senior management beneath them, and the boards guiding the company above them should all be aware of what is involved.
Laws will naturally differ across borders, but there are a few common tropes within corporate manslaughter rulebooks:
- In general, it needs to be established that the company fell below normal standards in its duty to care for employees or consumers.
- In general, the role of senior management will be scrutinised heavily.
- In general, there will be a “test” to determine whether or not a death meets the criteria for corporate manslaughter.
- In general, if a company is found guilty, it will be heavily fined – enough to harm the company’s financial health, but rarely enough to threaten its existence.
- Often, these charges can be accompanied by charges against specific individuals. If this happens, they will be charged with related crimes such as gross negligence.
Is there anything senior management and boards can do?
First and foremost, ensure that working environments and services meet the standards that the organisation has set itself. This is the best way to prevent a possible case.
When a death occurs, a company can only be judged on whether or not it met existing standards. New standards cannot be applied retroactively. Since all companies incorporate existing legal standards into their health and safety policies, following those policies is the easiest way to avoid trouble.
That said, it is also advisable to prepare for the worst, just in case. Senior management and boards should know where to find sufficient legal advice, they should have enough in the bank to cover costs, and they should have a strong grasp of the corporate manslaughter laws within their jurisdiction (if there are any).
Corporate murder in the United Kingdom
The UK is an excellent example of where corporate manslaughter laws are already in action because it showcases both the depth of legislation and the difficulty that remains in implementing it.
The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act is the current law governing how the crime is prosecuted. It defines the crime as being caused by a “gross breach of duty of care” on the part of the organisation in the event of a person’s death.
The UK corporate manslaughter test
British juries have a lot to consider when deciding if a case qualifies as corporate manslaughter. It will ask itself several questions as part of this “test”.
- What policies were in place to uphold the organisation’s duty of care?
- How seriously were these policies broken in relation to this death?
- Were these failures present at senior (decisions at company headquarters etc) or operational (more on-the-ground management) levels? Either is sufficient to qualify a case as corporate manslaughter.
- Did the operational failures fall “far below” what was reasonably expected?
- How serious were all the associated health and safety breaches that led to the death?
Are these corporate convictions in the UK common?
The flip side of the rigorous legal process is that despite over a decade of regulation, corporate manslaughter convictions in Britain remain rare.
Between the current law’s start date and early 2022, there have been fewer than 30 convictions according to government statistics.
Also, in the three years 2018-2021, any conviction of this was handed down only in cases where the defending corporate already pleaded guilty.
Corporate manslaughter remains quite hard to prosecute, largely because of the immense burden of proof in such a subjective area. In the absence of any amendments or reboots of current UK law, it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
A guide to corporate manslaughter in summary
Being linked to a possible case of corporate manslaughter is a situation no company wants to be in.
To avoid it, senior management and board members must do all they can to ensure they uphold their duty of care. This means fostering a culture of safety that permeates all areas of work.
If the worst should happen, boards and management should be clear on their legal standpoint and approach the subject with sensitivity and rationality.