Neglect by company directors found to have contributed to death of worker

It is always fascinating to hear of directors of companies being found personally guilty for workplace health and safety breaches because it seem to happen so rarely.

The latest instance in Australia occurred on 3 December 2010 following a 2007 death of a 22-year-old rigger named Luke Aaron Murrie.  Below is WorkSafe Western Australia‘s media release on the case.

“A Malaga hoist and crane company has been found guilty of failing to provide and maintain a safe workplace and, by that failure, causing the death of a worker.

Two Directors of the company were also found guilty of breaching a section of the Occupational Safety and Health Act dealing with offences that occur with the consent or connivance of a Director or are attributable to the neglect of the Director.

D & G Hoists & Cranes Pty Ltd and Directors David Patrick Majella Keating and Luigi Vincenzo Decesare were found guilty in the Perth Magistrates Court yesterday.

In October 2007, 22-year-old rigger Luke Aaron Murrie suffered a fatal head injury after being struck by a 375-kilogram section of crane mast that fell out of a pack of 16 sections being moved by a crane.

The Magistrate is expected to hand down the penalty in February.” [link added]

Looking at the company website of D&G Hoists indicates that this decision is likely to have a substantial impact on the company as Decesare and Keating are substantial decision makers.

The company also makes some statements on safety that sound reasonable if one is unaware of the death of Luke Murrie and the court decision on the company directors.

“Safety is paramount in the industry we are in, it is therefore paramount in every activity we do on a day to day basis.  To fulfil our commitment to safety we are proudly a fully endorsed Safety, quality and Environmental company.”

Companies should not have to mention workplace deaths on their websites, which are primarily advertising media, but there should be acknowledgement that such an event occurred.  It is understandable that the legal decision against the directors is not mentioned, at least until the penalty is announced.  But the judge’s decision has generated considerable media attention, particularly in Western Australia, and almost entirely as a result of the WorkSafe WA press statement.  Some of the media reports are in the trade publications of D&G Hoists’ industry, the crane business.

Business continuity would suggest that mistakes or bad decisions be acknowledged to indicate that a company is honest and open with clients and stakeholders.  A simple expression of regret on a website would assist in showing the maturity of a company even though this can be a tough personal call and one that lawyers may advise against.

There are no public statements available through an internet search on this case and the impact of an employee’s death at work on workmates and company directors should not be underestimated as the Creative Ministries Network research publication, Treated Like a Leper, illustrates too well.

Almost all the media attention, this blog included, has come from the sketchy details of the WorkSafe WA media statement.  Unless a journalist is in court to hear the case, very few details are released by the Magistrates Courts in Australia.  (It seems from the webpage of WorkSafe prosecutions reports that details of cases are not posted until after sentencing has been completed. probably for sound legal reasons.)  The silence from Courts at this level has always been frustrating for OHS writers but the broadcasting of court decisions will become a reality even though the suggested changes by the Victorian Government are likely to fade as a new government has been elected.  If courts want the community to be more engaged and need to compensate for the reduction of journalists in the public galleries, the new media structures provide the mechanisms to achieve this.

The court decision reported above is an important on in relation to company directors’ responsibility and exposure to prosecution but there is much more to the case that the judgement and it is hoped that more details emerge soon.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

3 thoughts on “Neglect by company directors found to have contributed to death of worker”

  1. Hi Kevin, obviously companies need to be doing everything they can to reduce workplace injuries.

    However, sometimes accidents happen and directors are gradually becoming aware that they can be held personally responsible.

    Directors & officers insurance can protect executives in these circumstances, and can sometimes extend to cover investigation costs incurred by the company.

    As you mentioned, incidents like these can have a significant financial impact on a company (especially SME\’s), and without the protection of D&O it may never recover.

    I note that two years down the track, it appears that the company is still in business; hopefully with the directors adequately protected.

  2. Some good observations Kevin. I think businesses can become too paranoid about liability or appearances associated with apologies, expressions of regret or condolences.

    Sometimes I think business owners probably suspect it will look insincere or trite – but the silence, the lack of acknowledgment, particularly when the web site otherwise proclaims their safety values is in my view far worse.

    The D&G Hoists website goes to some lengths talking about safety and indeed proudly proclaims a safety award it has won and that it is \”leading the way\” on aspects of crane safety. In this context the failure to mention the fatality is a significant omission. The fatality was 3 years ago and to be fair it may well have been acknowledged at that time. However it would not be difficult to weave the tragedy of Luke\’s death into the website description of the company\’s ongoing committment to improved safety.

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