pounds 1.7m fines after ferry walkway tragedy

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Michael Streeter

A judge yesterday fined four companies a record total of pounds 1.7m over the collapse of a ferry walkway which left six people dead and seven others badly injured.

Two Swedish firms who designed, built and installed the walkway at the Port of Ramsgate in Kent were fined a total of pounds 1m, the port pounds 200,000 and Lloyd's Register of Shipping, which gave the device a safety certificate, pounds 500,000 - the first criminal conviction in its 237-year history.

The fines, which follow conviction on 17 February after a four-week trial, pave the way for the injured and relatives of the dead to sue for massive civil damages, likely to total hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Richard Scorer, a solicitor representing a number of the claimants said later: "Compensation claims have already been lodged. I'm confident they will be settled. particularly in the light of the fines and verdict."

Passing sentence in the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Clarke said: "This was a tragic accident which should never have happened. I hope that nothing like it will ever happen again."

The previous largest fine for a charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act was pounds 750,000, imposed in 1988 following three fatal accidents at an oil refinery.Two Britons were among the six passengers who died when a steel pin holding the walkway in place came loose on 14 September 1994, as hundreds of passengers were boarding the Prins Filip ferry from Ramsgate to Ostend.

Steven Jones, 34, from Manchester, and Jason Dudley, 42, from Epping, Essex, died, as well as two French tourists, one Belgian and an Italian. Seven other passengers were seriously injured as more than a dozen people plunged 30ft on to a steel platform below.

The Swedish companies, FEAB and FKAB were guilty of "gross errors" of design, said the judge. There was also "gross negligence on the part of Lloyd's Register" - or rather its employees. Port of Ramsgate Ltd, he said, must share responsibility for the collapse of the walkway, although "much less than in the case of the other defendants".

A spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive, which brought the prosecutions, said later that it was "satisfied" with the sentences which it hoped would act as a warning.

The Swedish firms, who on legal advice were not represented in court, cannot legally be forced to pay the fines, because they have no UK assets, but it will bar them from trading here until they do.

Patrick O'Ferreall, chairman of Lloyd's Register said later: "I am personally extremely sorry that this dreadful accident happened. We wish to express our sympathies to those injured and to the families of those who died.

The Port of Ramsgate Ltd later said it was considering an appeal against sentence and conviction."The company does not feel it was culpable for the tragedy which occurred in 1994," said a spokeswoman.

Port Ramsgate Ltd, and the Swedish companies, had denied a Health and Safety Executive charge of failing to ensure the safety of passengers. Lloyd's Register of Shipping, had pleaded guilty to one charge brought under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Port Ramsgate Ltd was also found guilty of a lesser charge under the Docks Regulations Act 1988.

The defendants were ordered jointly to pay costs totalling pounds 723,500.