Farm manager and company cleared of manslaughter charges after tractor drivers’ death

Exeter Crown Court. Picture: Archant

Exeter Crown Court. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

A farm manager accused of manslaughter following the death of a young tractor driver has been cleared, along with the company for which he works.

Manager George Perrott and the farming division of Devon’s biggest landowner were both found not guilty of causing the death of farm worker Kevin Dorman after a three-and-a-half week trial.

Mr Dorman, aged 25, was crushed to death after the tractor and trailer he was using crashed at Houghton Farm, Newton Poppleford, on May 19, 2014.

The air brakes on the Richard Western trailer, which he was towing with a John Deere tractor, were not working when both the tractor and the trailer fell 15 feet onto a sunken road from a steeply sloping field.

Mr Perrott and Clinton Devon Farms Partnership (CDFP) had both faced charges of manslaughter at the trial at Exeter Crown Court.

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He was alleged to have caused Mr Dorman’s death through his grossly negligent maintenance of the brakes on the trailer.

The company was accused of corporate manslaughter on the grounds it had failed to enforce its own health and safety policies, allowing the accident to happen.

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Both were cleared of manslaughter and CDFP was cleared of a second count of failing to ensure the safety of an employee.

The jury was unable to reach a verdict on a similar health and safety charge against Mr Perrott. The prosecution will decide later whether to seek a retrial.

Mr Dorman’s fiancee Kirsty Clode and some members of his family burst into tears when the jury announced the verdicts after two days of deliberations.

During the trial, the prosecution alleged the accident was caused by the brakes, which had either not been checked for months, or had been wrongly adjusted in the week before the tragedy. They said another farm worker had reported a problem with the brakes but it had not been fixed.

The prosecution said CDFP has not supervised work on the farm closely enough to ensure that its own policies on safety and maintenance had been carried out.

The defence said there had been effective and robust systems for checking and maintaining all farm equipment, including the trailer.

Mr Perrott said he adjusted the trailer’s air brakes the week before the accident and GPS records of the movements of a tractor showed it had been skid-tested in the yard.

Both Mr Perrott and CDFP estates director Mr John Varley came close to breaking down with emotion as they spoke about the day of the accident.

Mr Perrott, said: “It was the worst day of my life. I have thought about it every day since.”

Mr Varley said he had driven across country and through a river to reach the scene of the accident because the roads were clogged with the emergency services.

Mr Perrott was the winner of Farming Weekly’s Farm Manager of the Year award in 2007 and acted as a judge in the awards the following year.

Much of the trial was taken up with expert evidence about the braking systems on the trailer. It had two different types of brakes on its front and back axises.

The air, or pneumatic, brakes were on the rear wheels while those on the front wheels were oil, or hydraulic brakes.

The air brakes were found not to be working after the crash, while the oil brakes did work. They were the only ones attached at the time. Other drivers who used the trailer in the week before the accident said both systems were connected.

Dr Andy Scarlett, a leading expert on trailer safety who was called by the defence, said there was nothing wrong with using both systems and a brake test when both were in use may not have diagnosed the fault.

He questioned whether the faulty brakes had caused the accident and said tyre marks on the field suggested the brakes had not been applied at all.

Police expert John Paul Snow said the brakes looked as if they had not been adjusted ‘for months’ and brakes on two other trailers had been fixed the day before they were due to be inspected by police.

Clinton Devon Farms Partnership is a division of Clinton Devon Estates which manages 2,800 acres of organic farmland in the Lower Otter valley.

Clinton Devon Estates is Devon’s biggest private landowner with 17,000 acres in East and North Devon and 350 houses. It manages the holdings of Lord Clinton.

Mr Dorman was a former Sidmouth College and Bicton College student who had worked on farms since he was a schoolboy and worked for CDFP for a year.

He was engaged to his fiancee Kirsty Clode and they were buying a house together on a shared ownership scheme. He was a keen footballer who played as striker for Sidmouth Town.

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