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Posted On: Feb. 23, 1997 12:00 AM CST

LONDON-U.K. companies face greater legal responsibility if their contractors' negligence injures employees or the public after a jury verdict last week in the U.K. Central Criminal Court in London.

Three companies were found guilty of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 after six people were killed and seven others were injured in September 1994 when a pedestrian walkway collapsed as they boarded a ferry.

Port Ramsgate Ltd. and two Uddevalla, Sweden-based companies, Fartygsentreprenader A.B. and Fartygskonstruktioner A.B., which designed, manufactured and installed the walkway (BI, Sept. 26, 1994), were found guilty.

Lloyd's Register of Shipping, one of the world's major maritime classification societies, which certified the walkway as safe, had pleaded guilty to a similar offense before the trial started. Its spokesman, Michael Franklin, said this was the first time Lloyd's Register had ever been found guilty of negligence.

The Health and Safety Executive, an agency that oversees workplace health and safety in the United Kingdom, brought the prosecution.

After the verdicts, the agency's deputy director general, David Eves, emphasized his determination to ensure companies do not disregard health and safety rules: "As regulators we take breaches of these duties very seriously and will not hesitate to prosecute wherever appropriate."

He added: "In bringing this matter to the court, HSE sought to send an important reminder to all employers that their legal responsibilities extend to the protection of the public from workplace activities. . . .The case also emphasizes the need for companies to ensure effective management of such projects at every stage."

The case highlights not only the direct responsibilities of companies for the safety of their employees and the public but also their responsibility for the contractors they use.

Port Ramsgate Ltd. would not comment on the cost implications of the verdict, although earlier a spokesman said it was a matter for its insurers and lawyers. However, insurance normally does not cover negligence fines.

Those found guilty face the possibility of unlimited fines. The highest penalty so far for a conviction under the Health and Safety at Work Act is (British pounds) 750,000 ($1.2 million), imposed on British Petroleum P.L.C. in 1988 after the death of three men in explosions at a refinery.

The case also has implications for foreign companies operating in Britain.

While the case is by no means the first time the HSE has prosecuted U.K. companies under the Act, it is the first time it has tested in court the application of the Act to foreign companies.

FKAB and FEAB chose not to attend the trial and were found guilty in their absence. Whatever fine is imposed on them could only be enforced if they attempted to do more business in the United Kingdom.

However, the trial will not have helped their reputations, as the prosecution convinced the jury the unsafe design and construction of the walkway caused the accident.

FKAB and FEAB declined to comment on the verdict.

The HSE alleged these defects went unnoticed or uncorrected because of commercial pressures to install the walkway as quickly as possible to meet competition from the Channel Tunnel, which was then about to open.

The walkway collapsed only four months after it was installed.

The Port of Ramsgate failed in its defense that it thought it had discharged all its obligations by instructing a reputable company to install the walkway and a reputable institute, Lloyd's Register, to check it.

The prosecution claimed the port had failed to stipulate design specifications and had encouraged the walkway to be constructed too fast so it would be ready in time for a new ferry service to begin.

The court will convene on Feb. 26 for Lloyd's Register to present any mitigating circumstances relevant to its case, while sentencing of all four defendants is scheduled for Feb. 28.

No one will be imprisoned as a result of the verdict.