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Boss is jailed over canoe deaths

The former boss of a Dorset activity centre was jailed for three years yesterday after being found guilty of the manslaughter of four teenagers who died on a canoeing trip last year.

Peter Kite, 45, former managing director of the owners of the St Albans centre in Lyme Regis, was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. The company was found guilty of corporate manslaughter and fined pounds 60,000; it is believed to be the first major conviction for corporate manslaughter in a British court. Sentencing Kite, Mr Justice Ognall said there was a need for more control and supervision to ensure the lessons of the Lyme Bay disaster had been learned. He ordered that details of the tragedy and the bungled rescue operation be passed to ministers for their ''immediate appraisal'', adding: ''The potential for injury and death is too obvious for safety procedures to be left to the inadequate vagaries of self-regulation.''

The judge said Kite was more interested ''in sales than in safety''. He added: ''The parents and the teachers trusted you . . . and you betrayed that trust.''

After deliberating for more than nine hours at the end of a 16-day trial, the jury brought in 10-1 majority verdicts of manslaughter against OLL Ltd, formerly Active Learning and Leisure Ltd, and Kite, of Richmond, London. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Joseph Stoddart, 53, the centre manager who was responsible for its day-to-day operation. The prosecution said that it would not seek a retrial and he was found not guilty of manslaughter at the direction of the judge.

The four teenagers who died, Claire Langley, Simon Dunne, Rachel Walker, all 16, and Dean Sayer, 17, all pupils at Southway Comprehensive School in Plymouth, were on a five-day holiday at the centre.

The court heard that the centre allowed two inexperienced and unqualified instructors to take a novice party on to the open sea without flares or a two-way radio; when the canoes began to capsize in strong winds, the teenagers were not told to inflate their lifejackets.

Additionally, the rescue operation went wrong when the harbourmaster and the centre took too long to alert the coastguards, who in turn failed to order a prompt air-sea rescue.

In his defence, Mr Stoddart, of West Lulworth, Dorset, said he had intended the canoeists to follow a coast-hugging route that day and not go out on the open sea.

He bore the responsibility for allowing the two instructors, Tony Mann and Karen Gardner, to lead the expedition because he believed in their abilities. Richard Lissack, QC, for Mr Stoddart, told the court that ''It was not a wise decision and that haunted him now. But this did not amount to gross negligence.''

The jury's decision to convict OLL Ltd is a warning to organisations, directors, senior executives and shareholders that they bear the ultimate responsibility for the safety of people passing through their care.

After the case, the parents of the victims called for government action. Referring to the rescue operation, Dennis Walker, the father of Rachel, said: ''I think everybody got it wrong on that day.'' It had been a ''catalogue of disasters''. Sylvia Dunne, mother of Simon, said that if the lifejackets had been inflated they would still be alive.

The tragic trip, page 6

Litany of mistakes, page 18