Care Home Fined for Fire Safety Breaches
The Crown Court at Newcastle has fined Shaftesbury Care Group £380,000 and ordered it to pay costs of £29,222. The company admitted failings under the Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
The prosecution followed a fire at one of the group’s care homes in September 2014. The fire destroyed a bedroom, damaged a corridor and caused significant smoke damage to other bedrooms. One resident became trapped in her room. She was rescued by firefighters and taken to hospital for treatment.
Tyne & Wear Fire and Rescue Service found that fire doors had been wedged open, there were a number of the fire extinguishers that had been condemned by the company’s appointed contractor and that the company had not carried out actions identified in a fire risk assessment.
In 2009 retailer New Look was fined £400,000 for fire safety breaches following a fire at its Oxford Street store two years previously. No one was injured. The judge found there had been lamentable failures. The company appealed the fine. The Court of Appeal upheld the sentence saying:
“We accept that the sentencing judge was intending to impose a fine which reflected the seriousness of the offence in its creation of the risk to visitors. The magnitude of that risk was demonstrated, not by a death or serious injury, but by a fire in which death or serious injury was fortuitously avoided”.
The Court of Appeal considered the sentencing guideline in place at the time for corporate manslaughter and health and safety breaches that had resulted in fatality. This has since been superseded by a new guideline: Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences: Definitive Guideline- (see https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/HS-offences-definitive-guideline-FINAL-web1.pdf). While this guideline does not cover fire safety offences, given the Court of Appeal’s approach in the New Look case, it is likely that courts will consider it in the future.
When sentencing companies for health and safety offences the Court first considers culpability, categorised as very high, high, medium or low and then harm by assessing a ‘harm category’ ranging from 1 (highest) to 4 (lowest). The harm category is determined by reference to the level of harm risked (which may be higher than the harm actually caused) against the likelihood of harm occurring (high, medium or low). The guideline notes the offence “is in creating a risk of harm”. This resonates with the Court of Appeal’s observations about fire risk mentioned above.
The culpability finding and harm category are then applied to a table which has four classifications of company in terms of turnover: micro (under £2m turnover), small (£2m – 10m), medium (£10m – £50m) and large (£50m plus). This table gives a starting point and sentencing range.
As a consequence of this new guideline many believe that health and safety fines will rise dramatically. In February this year fuel giant ConocoPhillips was fined £3m in relation to an uncontrolled release of gas from an offshore platform. Although no one was injured HSE said the lives of up to 66 workers had been put in danger. If this is replicated for fire safety breaches then we could see fines far greater than those imposed on New Look and Shaftesbury Care Group.