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Gloucestershire Business News

Judgement for Morrisons case

Supermarket giants Morrisons have been convicted by a jury of failing to ensure the health and safety of an epileptic employee who died after having a suspected seizure on a shop stairway and falling to the floor below.

The company denied three health and safety failures arising from the tragic death of Matt Gunn, 27, at the Morrisons store in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, in 2004 but was found guilty of all charges on Thursday (February 2) after a three week trial at Gloucester Crown Court.

Matt had been using the stairs at the store during his break on September 25, 2014, to collect something from his first floor locker. He fell and suffered catastrophic injuries from which he died in hospital on October 7, 2014.

The basis of the prosecution case against Morrisons was that as they knew of Matt's epileptic condition - he had suffered many previous seizures at work - they should have realised the danger of him having to use the stairs and should have moved his locker downstairs.

The prosecution also argued that because the staff canteen was also upstairs Matt should have been allowed to use the public cafe on the ground floor at discount rates.

Morrisons said in their defence that Matt could have used the lift to the first floor if he had wished - although his dislike of using lifts was known - and they also argued that he was at no more risk of danger on the stairs than anywhere else in the store.

The jury of 10 women and two men took seven hours and 20 minutes to reach their verdicts at Cirencester Courthouse and the judge, Moira Macmillan, then adjourned sentence till March 17th.

At the start of the trial the company had admitted one offence of failing to comply between May 26, 2015, and February 26, 2020, with a request made by an HSE inspector for contact details of a person the inspector wanted to speak to.

But the company contested the remaining three charges brought by Tewkesbury Borough Council, which were:

*Failure to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees, particularly Mr Gunn, a known epileptic, between July 29, 2004 and September 25, 2014;

*Failure to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees, in particular the assessment of the health and safety at work of Mr Gunn;

*Failure to review the risks and assessments of employees between July 29, 2004 and September 25, 2014, in particular when the company knew an assessment was no longer valid in relation to Mr Gunn.

The criminal trial followed an inquest in May 2016 when a jury found that Matt's death was an accident but added that Morrisons had missed opportunities to keep him safe.

Their verdict said "An absence of a structured process and ownership in relationship to managing a person with epilepsy, a lack of communication, no personal risk assessment or the monitoring thereof, and insufficient reporting all led to missed opportunities which may have contributed to Matt's Death."

Six foot four Matt had worked at the Tewkesbury supermarket for 10 years, first in the canteen but later in the Grocery Department.

On September 25, he was found at 2.30pm at the foot of the stairs by colleagues Lesley Dixon and Julie Blakeley.

He was taken by Air Ambulance to Southmead Hospital, Bristol, where he was found to have skull fractures, other multiple fractures and neurological injuries.

Following surgery he showed no neurological improvement and died 12 days later.

Matt had been diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 4 and lived with it for his entire working life. He had previously worked as a paper boy and he started at Morrisons in 2004 at the age of 17.

An epileptic seizure while working in the canteen led to a decision in 2005 to move him to the grocery department. The prosecution conceded during the trial that Morrisons had taken some measures to ensure he had a safe working environment.

Although he worked on the ground floor of the store, however, his locker - which had once been on the ground floor - was upstairs. He did not like to use the lift to go upstairs in case it went wrong and he suffered a fit while trapped in it.

And when suggestions were made that his locker should be moved downstairs he resisted them, saying he did not want to be treated as a special case.

Richard Atkins KC, prosecuting for Tewkesbury Borough Council, told the jury that even when Matt's mother, Sue, attended a meeting at the store in June 2014 and asked for his locker to be moved to the ground floor nothing was done - and three and a half months later Matt had his fatal fall.

"They knew all about his epilepsy at Morrisons because he had disclosed it when he applied for the job. He had suffered many epileptic seizures at work," Mr Atkins said.

"I make it clear that Morrisons probably did more than many other employers would have done to keep him employed - but we submit they did not do enough to ensure he was kept safe at work.

"An employer has a duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practical, the health, safety and welfare of its employees at work.

"We say Morrisons' failures were so serious as to be criminal. They failed to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks which Matt might be exposed to."

Mr Atkins said no-one witnessed Matt's fall and no-one could say exactly how it occurred. But it appeared, he said, that Matt had suffered a seizure while using the stairs to access his locker where he was required by the company to keep his phone, cigarettes and other personal belongings while working.

"He fell over the banister rail or the rail at the top of the stairs and was found on the hard floor in the well of the staircase by other members of staff and it was immediately apparent he had sustained very serious head injuries."

Mr Atkins told the jury about Morrisons' rules requiring employees not to carry mobile phones, money and other personal possessions with them while on duty and to put them in their lockers.

"Matt had to deposit his belongings in his locker when he started his shift and collect them at the end of his shift. If he needed money or cigarettes or any of his possessions during the day, he had to go to his locker. If he went out at lunchtime he had to go to his locker.

"It is clear, he had to go to his locker several times a day.

"To get to his locker he either had to use the stairs or the lift. Matt did not like using the lift as it was apparently unreliable and had broken down on a number of occasions.

"He had told his mother he hated using it. He knew people who had been trapped in it and it was often out of order."

Mr Atkins went on "The simplest thing Morrisons could have done was to move his locker to the ground floor and minimise the number of times he needed to use the stairs.

"I am not suggesting that they should have wrapped Matt in cotton wool or that they had to identify every possible risk no matter how small, fanciful or trivial. The words of the law are that they had to 'ensure as far as was reasonably practical the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.'

"But to have moved his locker to the ground floor would not have cost Morrisons very much money, or anything at all. After all, it had once been on the ground floor.

"Keeping it there, or moving it back there, would have considerably reduced the risk of him and may have meant he would still be alive today and we would not all need to be here in Cirencester at this trial."

Mr Atkins told the jury that on June 10, 2014, three and a half months before the fatal fall, Matt and his mother attended a meeting with the store personnel manager Lesley Dixon and occupational health officer Ruth Harris. His mother raised her concerns about him using the stairs to get to his locker and the staff canteen.

"She raised her concerns about what would happen if Matt had a seizure on the stairs and the potential serious consequences if that happened.

"She left the meeting with the impression that Lesley Dixon and Ruth Harris shared her concerns and would put measures in place to minimise the risk of Matt using the stairs.

"Ruth Harris suggested the locked could be moved downstairs and that Matt could use the public cafe on the ground floor to avoid going upstairs and could be given a discount there.

"Lesley Dickson said she would get in touch with someone to move the locker. It appears, however, that this suggestion of moving the locker downstairs was taken no further. If it had been moved downstairs, it might have meant Matt would still be here today."

Morrisons will be sentenced on March 17.

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