Individual convicted and sentenced to 18 months jail time for industrial manslaughter04 April 2022
On Friday 25 March 2022 Jeffrey Owen (Mr Owen), business owner of Owen's Electric Motor Rewinds in Gympie, was the first individual to go to prison after being prosecuted and convicted under Queensland’s industrial manslaughter laws, which were introduced in 2017.
District Court Judge Glen Cash QC sentenced Mr Owens to a five-year jail term, suspended after 18 months has been served with an operational period of five years. When sentencing, Judge Cash advised that Mr Owen’s sentence needed to reflect punishment, general and personal deterrence, and denunciation, as well as his personal circumstances and his remorse.
On 3 July 2019 Mr Owen was using a forklift to remove a generator from the back of a truck. Mr Owen’s friend was assisting him with this task, but the generator fell from the tines and landed on the friend, fatally crushing him.
The court heard that Mr Owen’s negligent conduct caused the death of his friend due to the following:
he was not licensed to drive the machine
the business failed to have documented safety systems and health and safer procedures in relation to the forklift and unloading heavy items, and
alternative safe methods were available to the business in relation to unloading heavy items, at little cost.
Definition of a “worker”
One of the main issues in this case was whether Mr Owen’s friend was a worker carrying out work for a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) within the meaning of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (WHS Act).
Mr Owen’s defence lawyers argued that the friend was not employed or contracted by the PCBU and therefore could not be considered a worker and stated he was simply ’helping a friend’ rather than performing work.
The prosecution relied on the definition of ”worker” under the WHS Act, which includes volunteers and this case confirms that a PCBU owes duties to workers whether the work they are doing is paid or not.
Following finalisation of the evidence and four hours of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict on the single charge of industrial manslaughter against Mr Owen. They were also satisfied that the friend was a ”worker” within Mr Owen’s business, who died as a result of Mr Owen’s negligent conduct while carrying out work for his business.
It is yet to be determined as to whether an appeal will be brought against the conviction.
This is a significant sentence of actual prison time and is an indication of how rapidly community standards and sentencing practices are moving in Australia.
Employers should take note that individuals are at great risk of prosecution for serious work health and safety breaches and therefore, must ensure they meet their obligations under work health and safety laws or face potential prison time in the most serious of cases.
Of significance, the first prosecution under these laws also related to the death of worker in a forklift incident. See our earlier article here, where the accused company was charged with industrial manslaughter and the directors each with a charge of recklessness (a Category 1 charge). In that case the company pleaded guilty, was convicted and fined $3M whereas the directors’ pleaded guilty to recklessness however their 10-month prison sentences were wholly suspended.
As more details become available about the Jeffery Owen landmark ruling, we will publish further updates.