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Alton pub owner fined £20,000 for safety 'recklessness'

Crown Hotel Alton

6:02am 17th May 2017

An Alton pub owner's 'reckless disregard' for safety left two men fighting for their lives in a collapsed tunnel. 

Director of Corinita Ltd, Steve Austen, the company which owns the Crown Hotel, exposed employees and the public to unnecessary risk.

He ordered excavations underneath the High Street pub and ignored warnings about the safety of the work.

A judge found that bar staff Ben Collins (then 26) and Matthew Bishop (then 23) were asked to deepen an existing cellar and excavate a connecting tunnel to a cellar bar under the 16th century building. 

During the work, on 19 April 2015, part of the unshored earthen walls collapsed and trapped both men underground. 

Mr Bishop was buried up to his chest in rubble and was asphyxiating due to the weight of the spoil bearing down on him.

Mr Collins managed to free himself and began tearing away at the earth with his fingers in an attempt to free Mr Bishop.

He eventually had to resort to using a power breaker to shift large lumps of solid earth lying across his friend’s chest that were preventing him from breathing.

As he continued to dig out Mr Bishop he discovered a bone protruding from his right ankle.

The event has left both young men suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, while Mr Bishop’s injuries were such that he required emergency surgery for a fractured right scapula, a fractured right wrist, the open fracture to the right ankle and ligament damage to a knee.

He was confined to a wheelchair for some time after the accident.

The overall psychological impact of the incident has had a very severe effect on his personal life, his employment and the lives of his family.

The court heard that the work had been inspected by a structural engineer on 26 March, a few weeks before the incident.

The structural engineer told Mr Austen that the excavation had undermined the foundations of the building and that no further work should be taken until the basement was securely underpinned.

Furthermore, earlier in the project a third employee had reported he had been trapped up to his knees by falling rubble.

The incident was reported to Mr Austen and resulted in the response ‘be careful’.

In passing sentence, on 4 May, District Judge Philip Gillibrand also considered a similar excavation carried out in 2012.

DJ Gillibrand said: “With all the previous knowledge and experience of this earlier work, how did the defendants in the current case behave?

"Firstly, they failed to carry out any risk assessment, obtain a method statement or obtain Building Control supervision. Secondly, they failed to obtain Building Consent for the excavation work despite an express notice in the grant of planning consent.

"Thirdly, they employed their own bar staff, with no or minimal building experience, to carry out the work in their spare time, cash in hand!”

Both defendants pleaded guilty to two offences each: Exposing employees to risks, under the Health and Safety at Work (etc.) Act 1974, and of failing to make a suitable assessment of the risks under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

He fined Coronita Ltd £20,000 after taking into account its annual turnover, a timely guilty plea and other factors.

Of Mr Austen he said: “At the time of the incident he was 60 years of age and, frankly, should have known better.

"Even if he lacked the actual foresight, he was certainly wilfully blind to the risks that he exposed others to even before the visit of the structural engineer on 26 March - thereafter those risks he was nevertheless prepared to take.

“That meeting equipped Mr Austen with the knowledge of the real risk of significant danger he was exposing Mr Collins and Mr Bishop. However, despite that, and armed with his age and experience of life, he did nothing to protect those individuals he was duty bound so to do.”

Austen was sentenced to 26 weeks imprisonment, suspended for a period of 24 months.

The legal and investigation costs amounted to £17,486.04. Coronita Ltd has been ordered to pay £11,657.36 and Austen the remaining £5,828.68.

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