Manslaughter director sent to jail by Court of Appeal

Michael Shaw, the director of Southampton stone specialists Change of Style who walked free from Winchester Crown Court in July having been convicted of the manslaughter of an employee, is to go to prison after all.

Last month (October) the Court of Appeal in London, uncommonly hearing an appeal against a too lenient sentence, said Michael Shaw should go to prison for the offence and sentenced him to 15 months. His wife is running the business while he is in prison.

The case arose from the death of a 22-year-old employee, David Bail, in May 2003. He died after his head was crushed in a Bavelloni CNC workcentre on which a safety light beam trip had been immobilised and a guard left open. Winchester court had heard from witnesses that the safety devices had been deactivated because they caused stoppages that cost too much time and money.

Mike Harrison, principal inspector at HSE's Basingstoke office, told NSS after the appeal court decision: "His [David Bail's] tragic death was avoidable, yet sadly inevitable given the circumstances. HSE cannot emphasise strongly enough to employers across industry the importance of ensuring that guards and other safety devices on machines are properly maintained and that machines are not operated with them removed or disabled. This case also sends a clear warning to individual directors that they need to take account of their responsibilities for ensuring that appropriate steps are taken to safeguard their employees. Managers also have responsibilities not to endanger the health and safety of those whom they manage.

"Health and safety laws are in place to protect workers from death and injury in the workplace. Everyone has a right to work in an environment where risks have been identified and eliminated where possible or otherwise controlled."

Winchester Crown Court had given Michael Shaw a two-year suspended sentence for the manslaughter and imposed fines of £70,000 on him and his company for 10 breaches of health and safety regulations. His son, Gavin, who had left the firm later in 2003, was fined £1,500 for one health and safety breach but was cleared of manslaughter due to lack of evidence. Peter Cowley, production manager at the time of the death, had previously been fined £600 for a health and safety offence by magistrates and ordered to pay £100 costs. A manslaughter charge against the firm remains on file.

Michael Shaw in fact stood trial twice for the manslaughter at Winchester Crown Court. At first he pleaded not guilty and the jury failed to reach a verdict. He then changed his plea to guilty and there was an immediate retrial. His counsel, Peter Birkett QC, said in court: "He has pleaded guilty in exceptional, if not unprecedented, circumstances. He was adamant he did not want the matter to go to a retrial. He believes many people would suffer, including the family of David Bail and the employees of Change of Style. It is the mark of a fundamentally decent man that he has done what he has done."

The judge in Winchester, Mr Justice Owen, told Michael Shaw then (see NSS August issue): "Some may feel you have got off lightly. But you will have to live out your days in the knowledge that you are responsible for that terrible tragedy, the needless death of this young man." The appeal judges ruled that the suspended sentence was unduly lenient.