LEEDS City Council could be charged with corporate manslaughter after an inquest into the death of a pedestrian was sensationally halted over concerns about the design of a landmark skyscraper.
Edward Slaney, from Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax, died after being crushed by a lorry that was blown off all four wheels in a notoriously windy area near Yorkshire’s tallest building, Bridgewater Place.
The inquest heard that the lorry “floated through the air like a hot air balloon” in gale-force winds before landing on the 35-year-old on March 10 last year. The hearing was told the accident spot had become known for strong winds and people had complained that “Bridgewater Place has turned the main street into a massive wind tunnel”.
Leeds Coroner’s court was told that “freakishly high” speeds of between 67mph and 79mph were recorded near the 367ft-tall building that day, and there had been a number of previous wind-related incidents, including a policeman being blown off his bike.
After hearing evidence about the design and construction of the 32-storey tower, Coroner Melanie Williamson, said: “I’m concerned having heard all the evidence there may be an offence of corporate manslaughter by one or more of the organisations.
“I’m obliged to adjourn this inquest pending further inquiries by the Crown Prosecution Service.”
Legal experts have told the Yorkshire Post that charges could potentially be brought against the council – either the planning department or the highways department – as well as those involved in the design of the development or those responsible for running the building, depending on when any gross breach of the duty of care is alleged to have occurred.
It is understood that anyone found guilty of corporate manslaughter would face an unlimited fine – normally starting at around £500,000 and potentially rising to many millions.
The building was developed by Bridgewater Place Limited. Company director Chris Gilman said: “This was a tragic accident. Different bodies were employed to do their job. They have done their jobs as best they can.
“Whether the problem is anyone’s fault is another question.”
A spokesman for Bridgewater Place Ltd said: “As originally stated, all building and planning regulations were fully adhered to in the development of Bridgewater Place. As part of the requirements for obtaining planning permission, Leeds City Council specifically requested that a comprehensive wind tunnel analysis was conducted to assess the effect of the building on the surrounding area.
“This was carried out by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and was required prior to construction starting on site.”
A Leeds City Council spokeswoman said: “We are surprised and disappointed by the coroner’s decision.
“The police investigation carried out before the inquest resumed was full and thorough and it found that the council had been proactive in recognising the issues and reacting to them.
“We are working urgently with the developer to achieve the best solution to the wind generated problems around Bridgewater Place to ensure the safety of highway users. This was a tragic incident and we convey our deepest condolences to the family.”
On Thursday the inquest had heard that people had been complaining to Leeds City Council of a “wind-tunnel effect” at Bridgewater Place since 2008.
Daljit Singh, deputy area planning officer at the council since January 2009, told the court that it had taken measures to protect pedestrians by erecting barriers, but he had no knowledge of whether anything had been done to protect high-sided vehicles, such as lorries, from the wind.
Ian Pennock, a lawyer representing Natasha Mahoya, a 22-year-old who was injured in the accident that killed Mr Slaney, read from letters of complaint. One read: “Bridgewater Place has turned the main street into a massive wind tunnel.”
A report containing a wind assessment was commissioned during planning stages in 2001. After this report, the building was moved two metres in its design and another wind assessment was not carried out until 2008, after it had been built.
When asked whether the initial report was out of date after the plans changed, Mr Singh, said: “I don’t know. That depends on how much the building has moved and the level of the change.”
A CPS spokeswoman said last night that it was waiting to hear from the coroner.