A FRUIT packing manager sent two employees to their deaths by asking them to ‘scuba dive’ without breathing apparatus into an oxygen-deprived storage unit to collect apple samples he wanted to enter into a show, a court has heard.
Andrew Stocker, 57, is accused of the manslaughter of two workers at the Blackmoor Estate in Liss, owned by Tory peer Lord Selborne, by ignoring health and safety regulation through encouraging his staff to use the ‘dangerous’ procedure.
Ashley Clarke, 24, who grew up in Emsworth and played for Southsea Nomads Rugby Club, and Scott Cain, 23, were both found unconscious on top of crates of apples in a storage facility on February 18, 2013.
Efforts by staff and paramedics to revive them were unsuccessful and both were declared dead at the scene.
Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting, told Winchester Crown Court that Stocker – on holiday in the Maldives at the time – 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 in Kent.
He said that Stocker enjoyed the ‘kudos’ of winning at the contest rather than claiming the ‘modest’ financial prizes.
He explained that Stocker encouraged the practice nicknamed ‘scuba diving’, which involved staff entering the storage units through a hatch in the roof and holding their breath while they ducked inside in the cramped conditions to retrieve samples.
Mr Dennis said that the air in the sealed units had oxygen levels reduced to one per cent for the long-term preservation of the fruit and a person would die immediately after they ran out of breath while in the facility.
He said the term ‘scuba diving’ was ironic as they were not given breathing apparatus to carry out the task.
He said: On the day of the double fatality, the defendant had just arrived in the Maldives for the start of a holiday.
‘However, three days earlier he had given instructions that an employee should gather samples for the forthcoming fruit show which had to be delivered to the show’s organisers by the Wednesday and he instructed Scott Cain to take the lead on gathering the samples, leaving Scott to raise a companion to assist him.
‘The defendant knew well that the forbidden form of entry would have to be employed in order to gather the samples.’
Mr Dennis said that despite being aware of the risks, Stocker 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.’
Mr Dennis 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 getting apples of the right size 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.
‘He himself had carried out such a highly risky procedure for one reason or another.’
Describing the Marden Fruit Show which Stocker intended to enter, Mr Dennis said: ‘It was, in fact, a national fruit show and there were two annual events; the spring event included a competition in respect of long-term stored fruit.
‘Applications to enter the competition, together with the entry exhibits themselves, had to be received in mid- February, the show itself would be held in March.
‘The defendant had entered stored fruit in the company’s name for many years and had often been successful.
‘The defendant had ensured the paperwork for the entry in the 2013 competition was completed before he had left for his holiday. This year he was to enter three varieties of apples.’
Mr Dennis said that, prior to the fatal incident, Mr Cain, assisted by Stocker’s son Benjamin Stocker, who worked as a forklift driver at the estate, had collected 90 apples using the scuba-diving method from another of the storage units.
He said: ‘Scott carried out the actual gathering of samples from the unit. He did so by entering the unit, holding his breath and going inside.
‘He would take a deep breath, then duck down, taking with him an empty net into which he would place 10 apples which he would select from the stored boxes. He would then reappear and hand the samples to Benjamin before he would repeat the process, and did that about nine times.
‘The only safety measure in place if Scott got into difficulties, having held his breath, ducked down and gone inside, if he got into difficulties then Benjamin would call for help. Chilling, when you think about it.’
Mr Dennis said Stocker instructed Mr Cain to select the competition samples during his absence and told him: ‘If you could do the same as last year, we are laughing.’
Stocker of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, denies the charges.
Mr Dennis said that he gave a statement to police in which he claimed that he believed that entering a unit operating in controlled atmospheric conditions, down to one per cent oxygen, entering by holding your breath, balancing on top of a stack of boxes was a safe method of gathering the samples for the Marden Fruit Show.
He added: ‘The defendant cannot try to shift the blame for what happened on this fateful day or his responsibility for the dangerous practices on to the company or anyone else’s shoulders.
‘The death of these two men was not the fault of the company, this was the fault of the defendant as the head of the pack house department who allowed a dangerous practice to develop and continue.’
He said the practice was a ‘short cut’ and added: ‘This was an accident waiting to happen, obviously so now two young men have died for the negligence in the workplace.’
The trial was adjourned until tomorrow.