Post incident conduct: Is it relevant?

You can download a PDF version of this update HERE

A recent Victorian decision, Australian Box Recycling , received some attention on health and safety social media sites because of comments about the lack of remorse by the company.

The case involved a workplace fatality, but prior to the prosecution, the company applied to deregister and did not take part in the proceedings. Deregistration was unsuccessful, although the owners of Australian Box Recycling had started a new company doing similar things, and the case against the company proceeded.

The prosecution argued that the actions by Australian Box Recycling showed a lack of remorse for the incident, and the court agreed describing their conduct as “contemptible“, imposing an $800,000 fine:

Their attempt to wash their hands of their responsibilities by shutting down the company once charges were laid, refusing to take part in court proceedings, and starting up a similar company just nine months after their employee died is utterly contemptible and should be condemned

The conduct of a company after a workplace accident can have a significant bearing on the outcome of legal proceedings. Very often, the actions taken by a company can be used to argue mitigation and reduce any penalty the Court might otherwise impose.

A notable example is when a company pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity. Although there are no hard and fast rules about the value of an early guilty plea, it is often associated with discounts on penalties of up to 25%.

Other “post-accident” factors include:

  • The steps taken by the company to improve health and safety;
  • The level of support shown for any injured personnel and their families; and
  • The level of remorse shown by an organisation – often evidence by the factors above.

Conduct that evidences a lack of remorse or a lack of cooperation can have significant, adverse consequences for a company.

One case where this played out was the prosecution of Esso Australia Pty Ltd
following the Longford Gas Plant Explosion in 1998.

In the sentencing hearing following prosecution, the Court was very critical of Esso’s ongoing failure to accept responsibility for the accident:

However, before imposing sentence on Esso it is unfortunately necessary to examine the litigious conduct of Esso in these proceedings. It is necessary both of itself and as an incident of sentencing – remorse and rehabilitation being relevant to that end.

Esso and its senior officers have expressed remorse for the tragic loss of life and injury … I have no doubt that that personal remorse is genuine … I acknowledge that genuine remorse. However, personal expressions of remorse need to be translated into reality. In the present case, they have not been. here are three matters which militate against corporate remorse.” [40 – 43]

The factors that mitigated against that remorse were:

  • The litigious treatment of the employees;
  • The conduct of the defence in the trial, which was described as “one of obfuscation – designed not to clarify, but to obscure” [45]; and
  • The “lamentable failure of Esso to accept its responsibility for these tragic events“. [46]

In another example, a company, Ferro Con (SA) Pty Ltd was heavily criticised following a workplace fatality when it relied on an insurance policy:

In my opinion Mr Maione and Ferro Con have taken positive steps to avoid having to accept most of the legal consequences of their criminal conduct as determined by the course of justice. This has occurred through Mr Maione successfully calling on an insurer to pay his fine .” [78]

In my opinion Mr Maione’s actions are so contrary to a genuine acceptance of the legal consequences of his criminal offending that they dramatically outweigh the benefits to the justice system of the early guilty plea and statement of remorse. Accordingly it would be entirely inappropriate to grant any reduction of penalty to Mr Maione or Ferro Con in these circumstances .” [81]

But it is not just prosecutions where post incident behaviour by a company and its officer can influence the outcome of a legal process, or lead to criticism.

A striking example comes from the Montara Commission of Inquiry.

The Inquiry was established following the uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons from an offshore drilling platform off the coast of North West Australia in August 2009.

During the Inquiry, one of the key participants. PTTEPAA was heavily criticised for its conduct, to the point that the Inquiry recommended that the Australian Government review PTTEPAA’s licence to operate in Australia:

The Inquiry considers that the manner in which PTTEPAA approached the National Offshore Petroleum Authority (NOPSA), the NT DoR and the Inquiry itself provides further evidence of the company’s poor governance. PTTEPAA did not seek to properly inform itself as to the circumstances and the causes of the Blowout. The information that it provided to the regulators was consequently incomplete and apt to mislead. Its dealings with this Inquiry followed a similar pattern.

The Inquiry recommends that the Minister for Resources and Energy review PTTEPAA’s licence to operate at the Montara Oilfield. At this juncture the Inquiry has little confidence in PTTEPAA’s capacity to apply principles of sensible oilfield practice ” (page 12)

There is nothing in these cases that should discourage a business from understanding and acting on any legal rights they have following a workplace accident. However, these rights and any legal strategy need to be carefully balanced as part of an overall response.

 

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