A firm of estate agents has been fined £200,000 after a woman fell down an unguarded well during a viewing.
Strakers, of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, had organised the open house viewing on April 23 last year.
At Swindon Magistrates Court, the firm pleaded guilty to a charge of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act by failing to discharge a health and safety duty to a person other than an employee.
Because Strakers pleaded guilty, most of the argument in court revolved around the degree of blame that could be attached to Strakers.
Lucy Driver and her husband James had gone to the viewing. The agent remained inside the house while the Drivers walked in the garden.
Mrs Driver stepped off a garden path, and fell through a wooden board, 30 feet down into the well beneath, the court heard.
She was totally submerged in the water before coming to the surface. She stayed afloat with the help of a hosepipe fed down by neighbours, and it was over an hour before she was rescued by the fire service.
An HSE investigation concluded that Strakers had failed to assess the risks.
On behalf of the Health and Safety Executive, Inspector Matt Tyler said that three days before the open house, Strakers had been told by an earlier prospective buyer of the well, but had taken no action.
Employee Tim Peters had visited the house when told of the well, looked at the wooden board covering it, and assumed that the well underneath would be covered by a metal grill.
The property was a probate sale, and Strakers had no systems in place for risk assessment for houses where the previous owner had died – for example, detecting risks such as asbestos or electrical hazards.
Representing Strakers, Andrew McLaughlin, argued that the company’s culpability was low.
No estate agent in the country, he said, had a written procedure for properties in probate sales.
Strakers had not been in breach of any guidelines, and nor were there any HSE recommendations where property was offered for sale.
He said Strakers had since engaged a health and safety consultant and put new systems in place.
However, Judge Cooper ruled that Strakers’ culpability was high.
The board over the well had not been raised, and the well presented a risk of serious injury of death.
The Judge said he did not wish to damage the ability of Strakers to pay the civil claim brought by Mrs Driver – who said she had suffered post traumatic stress after the event – and nor did he wish to put the firm out of business, but he said the fine must be sufficient to have a real impact.
The Judge imposed a fine of £200,000, reduced from £300,000 because of the guilty plea, and ordered Strakers to pay HSE costs of £2,474.
Strakers have been given two years to pay the fine in monthly instalments.
Antony Bulley, Strakers managing director, said directors and staff had been “deeply distressed” by the incident.
He said: “We wish to make it known that Strakers have carried out extensive internal investigations and have fully cooperated with the Health and Safety Executive throughout culminating in a plea of guilty at the earliest opportunity presented.”
A full report of the case is here: http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/15115841.Estate_agent_fined___200_000_after_house_hunter_fell_down_30ft_well/