Death firms 'should pay more'

Lawyer urges huge fines for companies that cause fatal disasters

COMPANIES that kill people should face even stiffer sanctions than those proposed in changes to corporate manslaughter laws by the Law Commission last week, the top British lawyer in the field said this weekend.

Cases should be easier to win and the penalties should be even heavier than the fines running into millions of pounds proposed by the commission, said solicitor Rodger Pannone.

"If you look at average fines for breaches of legislation, they're relatively low," he said. "If it doesn't hurt, then there isn't any point in having them. The level must be substantial for the larger organisations. There are some absolute sharks around, but fear is a great thing for converting a bastard into a saint."

Mr Pannone, who is a past president of the Law Society of England and Wales, has represented victims of some of the worst UK disasters, from the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion (167 dead) through the Clapham rail crash (35 dead) to the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise (187 dead).

The commission suggested a new offence of "corporate killing", which would remove a key defence for firms so far: that "a single mind" must be shown to be in charge of a company before a conviction can be obtained.

There have been only four prosecutions for corporate man- slaughter and just one conviction - in the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy in which four children died. The organiser, OLL, was fined pounds 60,000 and its boss, Peter Kite, was jailed for three years.

Mr Pannone said the new proposals, if adopted by the Home Office, still did not go far enough: "I would have taken the criminal liability out and made it civil," he said. "And I would want it to be law that companies every year had to publish in their annual report their safety records, any prosecutions they'd faced and fines they had paid."

The advantage of civil claims is that cases can be won on a balance of probabilities rather than beyond reasonable doubt as in criminal actions.

Mr Pannone also said that under his system fines would include an element of punitive damages, an approach used in the US, and should be uninsurable, so that the full cost would be felt. Damages, though, could be put into a fund aimed at encouraging better safety practices, rather than being paid to the plaintiffs, as in America.

The counter-argument, he admits, is that shareholders would be hardest hit, even though they would often be completely unaware of the circumstances leading up to a disaster. But Mr Pannone denies his proposal is draconian. "Shareholders have a right and a responsibility to know the records of the companies in which they invest."

Most companies, he believes, would support his suggestions because they are responsible corporate citizens. "The vast majority of companies in this country take industrial safety very seriously. Those that cut corners have an unfair competitive advantage over good companies, so it's in everyone's interest to see them punished."

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