The manager of an oxygen-deprived fruit storage unit has been jailed for two-and-a-half years for the manslaughter of two workers who died collecting apples for a fruit competition.
Andrew Stocker, 57, of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, Hampshire, was convicted at Winchester Crown Court last month over the deaths of Ashley Clarke, 24, from Emsworth, and Scott Cain, 23, who were employees at the Blackmoor Estate near Liss, owned by Tory peer Lord Selborne.
A jury found him guilty of causing the deaths by ignoring health and safety regulations through encouraging staff to use the “dangerous” practice of “scuba-diving”.
This involved the workers entering the storage unit, which only has 1% oxygen, through a hatch on the roof, holding their breath as they balanced on highly-stacked crates of apples, and ducking in to collect the best samples to enter the Marden Fruit Show in Kent.
Blackmoor Estate Ltd was also fined £75,000 with £30,000 costs after entering guilty pleas to three counts of contravening regulations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
The charges relate to failing to provide adequate emergency plans and carrying insufficient risk assessments but the court heard these were not causative of the deaths and steps had since been taken to rectify the breaches.
Mr Justice Akenhead said that Stocker’s offences had been aggravated by there being two deaths and he had been “reckless” by ignoring clear guidelines that no-one should enter the storage units.
Addressing Stocker, he said: “It’s clear you have suffered since that day from depression and to say you have suffered remorse is an understatement.
“If this can be classified as an accident at all, it was an accident. It was more accurately a disaster waiting to happen.”
Mr Akenhead provided a series of suggestions for the fruit packing industry to adopt to prevent further deaths which included the phasing out of hatches on the rooftops of controlled atmosphere units (CAU), which should be kept locked with explicit signage warning of the danger of death.
He said: “It will not lessen the pain felt by the families of Scott and Ashley but I hope the legacy of this case is that no further lives will be lost in this way.”
Mr Cain, who was engaged to be married to Filipa Turner, the mother of his four-year-old daughter, and Mr Clarke, who was engaged to Rachel Higgins, were both found unconscious in one of the storage facilities on the afternoon of Monday February 18 2013.
Efforts by colleagues and paramedics to revive them were unsuccessful and both were declared dead at the scene.
Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting, told the court that the families of the two men had said in victim impact statements how the deaths had caused a “long-lasting effect”.
He said that Ian Clarke, Mr Clarke’s father, described the “unimaginable suffering” for the family and the “enormous effect” on his wife Sharon.
Mr Dennis said that Mr Cain’s mother, Sher O’Reilly said that she had a “special bond” with her son and she added that his death had a lasting effect on her younger sons.
Mr Dennis told the trial that Stocker, who was on holiday in the Maldives at the time of the incident, had instructed Mr Cain to gather the sample fruit while he was away to be entered in the Marden Fruit Show, held twice a year.
He said Stocker enjoyed the “kudos” of winning at the contest rather than claiming the “modest” financial prizes. Mr Dennis said the air in the sealed units had oxygen levels reduced to 1% for the long-term preservation of the fruit and a person would die immediately after they ran out of breath while in the facility.
Mr Dennis said that, despite being aware of the risks, he encouraged the practice and added: “In so acting he breached his duty of care to the two young men who died and his breach amounted to gross negligence and that directly led to the tragic loss of two lives.”
He said the accepted practice in the industry for gathering samples was to use a net to hook out the fruit but this random selection was not suitable for selecting apples of the right size to be entered for competitions.
He added: “Andrew Stocker was a keen participant in this competition and took pride in his entries.
“Financial prizes were very modest; however, it was the kudos of winning that was more important.
“The defendant knew that the only way the best samples could be gathered is for someone to enter from the top hatch and make a selection of fruit.”
Richard Matthews QC, defending Stocker, said: “Nothing I can say on behalf of Mr Stocker can compare to the utter devastation to those who are the family of Scott Cain and Ashley Clarke and the loved ones.”
He said that his client was on medication for post-traumatic stress and depression following the incident.
He said: “He is deeply troubled and deeply affected by what he did, by what he caused.”
He added: “Mr Stocker has never denied responsibility, what he has been unable to come to terms with is the extent of his culpability and thus his responsibility. His mind and his conscience is a troubled place.
“It is a tragedy for all concerned. Mr Stocker finds himself aged 57 without employment, without a sense that he can face continuing working life or even face the normality of existence.”
Ben Compton QC, representing the company, said that trauma counselling had been offered to all of its workers following the incident which had been “felt very keenly” in the close local community.
He added: “Since this accident, the company’s actions have included an internal review with industry assistance, safe systems of work for the stores, they have updated cold store operatives’ training and pre-season refresher training.
“There’s a whole new management system and management team and the appointment of a health and safety co-ordinator.”
He said that the company had made a loss of £840,000 in 2013 although it had returned to profit in 2014 with the sale of three cottages.
He added: “It’s not an easy time in the fruit market and prices have taken a 20% hit.”
Speaking after the trial, Mr Clarke, from Emsworth, said: “We are quite upset that someone could put someone’s lives at risk to collect apples for a competition. For me, it doesn’t make sense, it’s beyond belief.
“I do not think he’s a bad man but he’s left us without a son.”
Detective Sergeant Rich Sellwood, of Hampshire police, said: “This case has been a tragedy for everyone involved.
“Whilst it is unlikely that anyone will take any pleasure from seeing a man like Andrew Stocker sent to prison, he has been found to be responsible for encouraging and supervising the appallingly dangerous practice that directly led to the deaths of two young men.
“I hope that the families of Scott and Ashley will take some solace from the fact that someone has been held to account for these totally avoidable deaths.
“Blackmoor Estate PLC has been fined £75,000 plus costs of £30,000 for serious breaches of Health and Safety legislation, but no-one has suggested that the company was aware of the fatal practice that was being undertaken.
“Our thoughts remain with the families of Scott Cain and Ashley Clarke.”