UNITED KINGDOM (Morning Star) – Almost six years after Mark Wright was killed in a workplace explosion the case has still not come to court.
Wright suffered horrific burns in April 2005 after compressed butane aerosols exploded in a crushing machine he had been instructed to operate at the Deeside Metal works in Cheshire, UK.
His family argues that this was expressly prohibited by the machine manual but that he had not received proper training and had not been provided with adequate safety equipment.
They believe that his death was a case of gross negligence and corporate manslaughter.
“Mark had told us of his fears regarding health and safety at the firm,” his mother Dorothy Wright tells the Star.
“He said he believed they were dealing with hazardous waste. He decided he wanted to leave and applied to go on a training course which we were going to pay for. About a week before the explosion there was another fire at the site and he decided he couldn’t wait to get out.
“He phoned me on April 11, my birthday, and he was over the moon because he had found another job and couldn’t wait to start. That was the last time I spoke to him because the next day I got the phone call.
“I knew immediately what had happened. Words can’t describe the feeling.”
Hospital staff kept Mark alive until the family could travel down from Scotland to be there for his last moments.
“He had 90 per cent burns, all his internal organs were burned,” says Dorothy.
“To see someone burned beyond recognition like that is just horrific. They let us sit with him for a while and then they turned off the life support machine.”
Sadly the delays in the Wright case are no anomaly. Cases regularly take between four and five years to reach court or, on occasion, even the inquest stage.
These delays, resulting from a combination of flawed investigations and legal wrangling by company lawyers, compound the agony of the bereaved.
Even when the glacial process of prosecuting for workplace deaths does arrive at the courts negligent firms seldom, if ever, receive more than a paltry fine.
Like many others who have found themselves in similar situations Dorothy thought that justice would be speedily dealt with.
“People have no idea,” she says. “They think, like I thought, that these things are dealt with fairly and quickly but they are not. Families of people killed at work get no financial help with legal representation while companies tend to be able to pay for big hitting barristers.
“Unless a union is involved, and in my son’s case it was a non-union workplace, the family has to foot the bill or go to a no win no fee lawyer.
“That’s what we had to do. Our lawyer is fantastic and has gone above and beyond the call of duty. If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t have got this far.”
In June 2005 the Crown Prosecution Service found that there was insufficient evidence to charge the firm with corporate manslaughter. Dorothy challenged the decision and complained to the chief constable of the investigating force.
“I wrote to the chief constable which resulted in a visit to my home by two senior officers from Wales, who told me that the crown prosecutor had made his decision ‘very early on’ in their investigation, which ‘may’ have affected the level of their inquiries and they would reopen the case.
“At the first pre-inquest in January 2007 the coroner suspended the case for eight weeks for police to complete this but the eight weeks became eight months before we had another pre-inquest meeting without any further action.”
It took almost four years to eventually secure an inquest into Mark’s death.
From the start, Dorothy says, she was made to feel as if she was the guilty party.
Speaking of a meeting with the CPS to discuss the decision not to bring manslaughter charges, she says: “We were treated with utter contempt, antagonism and a show of the most unprofessional rage – in fact made to feel that we were in fact the criminals. He was certainly not impartial or fair.”
She raised the case with both the director of public prosecutions and the Attorney General, a process which took over 10 months with little to show for it.
The case is currently set for trial in December this year, following interminable legal delays and disputes over the extent of culpability the company is prepared to accept.
Dorothy is not optimistic about the result. “They changed the law to increase the levels of fines the courts could give out but I saw a firm just the other day which was only fined £17,000 for a death at work,” she says.
“Hovis was just fined the same amount after someone finding a dead mouse in a bag of bread. That’s what a working man’s life seems to be worth.
“These companies know the risks they are putting on their employees. We were naive. We thought most employers were abiding by health and safety laws, but many aren’t.”
This week it is expected that Tory peer Lord Young will publish the findings of his review of health and safety legislation. He has professed an intention to cut back on what both he and David Cameron have described as “red tape” and curb no-win, no-fee lawyers.
Lord Young has done little to enamour himself to campaigners and those who have lost family members through companies’ negligence, describing work deaths dismissively as “an unfortunate fact of life” and health and safety legislation as a “music hall joke.”
Families Against Corporate Killers spokeswoman Hilda Palmer says: “Mark Wright’s death is a terrible tragedy for his family but it is neither rare, nor accidental, nor inevitable.
“It happened because his employers failed to operate safe systems and failed to protect their employees’ lives and health.
“This appallingly risky state of affairs is far more common in workplaces, from offices, shops and schools as well as recycling and manufacturing factories, than Lord Young and the tabloid press misrepresentation of health and safety as a joke would lead you to believe.
“If the sons and daughters of Lord Young, David Cameron and Chris Grayling faced the possible loss of their lives or damage to their health as Dorothy’s son did, then I doubt they would be cutting up the safety net and making jokes about it.”
One of the proposals that it is feared Lord Young will recommend when he publishes his review on Friday is curtailing the extent to which the families of those killed at work can have access to no-win, no-fee lawyers.
Recent cuts have effectively removed the right to legal aid in such cases. Now it is believed that Lord Young is proposing that the “success fee” would have to come from the claimant family rather than, as is currently the case, the defendant – usually a big business.
If such a proposal is introduced this would seal off the last avenue of legal recourse for many families.
Martyn Day of Leigh Day Solicitors tells the Star: “Cases involving deaths at work and corporate killing are some of the most complex us lawyers face. The death of the individual often makes the evidence-gathering very difficult and because of the risks of the defendants of an adverse ruling … they go to great lengths to defend the action.
“Legal aid has almost entirely been withdrawn from the field. As a result lawyers have had to take on such cases under the conditional fee agreement regime. This has involved difficult decisions at times because often the evidence in the early days is so uncertain and lawyers can invest many thousands and tens of thousands in such cases before it even becomes clear as to quite how strong the case is.
“Lord Young seems to be suggesting the ability to claim the ‘success fee’ from the defendants will go, saying the lawyers would have to claim the ‘success fee’ from the claimant family. The prospect of taking tens, if not hundreds of thousands, in fees from a family already devastated by the loss of the main earner within the family is one that all lawyers, or at least certainly this lawyer, will instinctively baulk at.”
Day says that this could mean that lawyers are more conservative about the cases they take on – leaving many families without the recourse to adequate representation
“All ways around it seems to me the Young proposals will end up in a lot of misery for families already struggling to cope with the grief of the loss of their loved ones,” he says.