Council charged with manslaughter after Legionnaire's outbreak

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The Independent Online

A council was charged yesterday with corporate manslaughter after seven people died during an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, in what is believed to be the first time a local authority has faced such charges.

A council manager was also charged with manslaughter following the incident at an arts centre in Cumbria that infected 157 people. The outbreak, which was one of the worst in Britain, was traced to an air-conditioning unit at the council-run Forum 28 Arts Centre in Barrow-in-Furness. Gillian Beckingham, 45, a manager at Barrow Borough Council, and her local authority have been charged with seven counts of manslaughter and an offence under health and safety regulations.

A Barrow Borough Council spokesman said that members of the public were infected in August 2002 after walking near an air vent at the complex. The vent was outside the arts centre. The victimswere June Miles, 56; Richard Macaulay, 88; Georgina Somerville, 54; Harriet Low, 74; Wendy Millburn, 56; Elizabeth Dixon, 80; and 55-year-old Christine Merewood.

The disease is caused by the bacteria, Legionella pneumophilia, which was first identified in 1976. The bacteria which is common in the environment, but becomes infectious when it is inhaled as water vapour such as when it gets into air conditioning. A spokesman for Cumbria police said: "A decision was made to go ahead with the charges following discussions with the Health and Safety Executive and the Crown Prosecution Service."

A spokesman for Barrow Borough Council said: "We are currently seeking legal advice and we do not feel it appropriate to comment further at this time." Ms Beckingham is due to appear at Furness magistrates court on 24 February. The council will answer the summonses at the same hearing. It is not the first time manslaughter charges have been brought after an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.

IMCO plastics Ltd, in Somerset, and its managing director Michael Lewis were charged with the offence after three people died of the disease, traced to the factory's cooling towers. The victims contracted the disease in September 1998 after visiting a garden centre adjacent to the IMCO factory.

The manslaughter charges were stayed last year after Mr Lewis was judged unfit to stand trial.

The company was fined £70,000 in November last year after pleading guilty to two counts of breaching health and safety legislation.

There are about 200 cases of Legionnaires' a year in England and Wales, but most infections are isolated. Although the disease can be treated with antibiotics within up to two weeks, it is difficult to identify because its symptoms are similar to flu.