THE manager of a fruit packing operation has been found guilty of the manslaughter of two workers who died after he asked them to ‘scuba dive’ without breathing apparatus in an apple storage unit.
Andrew Stocker, 57, was convicted by a jury at Winchester Crown Court over the deaths at the Blackmoor Estate in Liss, owned by Tory peer Lord Selborne, by ignoring health and safety regulations through encouraging staff to use the “dangerous” procedure.
Ashley Clarke, 24, who grew up in Markway Close, Emsworth, and Scott Cain, 23, who was engaged to be married to the mother of his young child, were both found unconscious on top of crates of apples in a storage facility on the afternoon of 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 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 in Kent.
He said Stocker enjoyed the ‘kudos’ of winning at the contest rather than claiming the ‘modest’ financial prizes.
Mr Dennis explained that Stocker, of The Links, Whitehill, Bordon, 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 the fruit samples.
Mr Dennis said 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.
The prosecutor said 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.’
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.’
Ashley, a former Bourne Community College pupil, had moved from Emsworth to live with his fiancée Rachel Higgins in Liss.
He played for Southsea Nomads Rugby Club and was an engineering graduate.
Ashley was engaged to be married, Mr Cain lived with his fiancée and was father to their two year-old daughter. Both partners also worked on the Blackmoor Estate.
Hampshire Constabulary’s investigation was led by Detective Sergeant Rich Sellwood.
Speaking after today’s verdict, he said: ‘This was an extremely tragic case resulting in the completely avoidable deaths of two young men.
‘It is a tragedy for all involved. We hope that lessons will be learned that prevent this from ever happening again.’