Down Hall hotel fined £200,000 over swimming pool double deaths
Down Hall Country House hotel in Hatfield Heath, Essex, where two guests drowned in its unusually-shaped pool in 2013, has been fined £200,000 over "a culture of systemic health and safety breaches".
A judge at Chelmsford Crown Court fined owner, Veladail Hotels Ltd of Mayfair, London, £100,000 on each of two charges in a case brought by Uttlesford District Council and also ordered the company to pay the local authority's £30,000 costs.
Nursing student Josephine Foday, 22, of Barth Road, Plumstead, London, and her married lover Komba Kpakiwa, 31, of Arthur Street, Erith, Kent, both died from drowning in the hotel pool. It has since been filled in and replaced with a spa facility. An inquest recorded that both died accidentally.
The court was told that the Veladail group has assets of £100m and the four-AA-star, 99-bedroom Down Hall hotel is worth £12m. Occupancy rates dropped from 76% to 67% following the two deaths on 27 April 2013 and the hotel's profitability fell from just over £500,000 to just under £50,000 as a result of the tragic event.
Veladail pleaded guilty to failing in its duty not to expose guests to risk in that it permitted them to use a swimming pool without having sufficient regard to risk assessments carried out by Hygcam Ltd and 4SIGHT Risk Management Ltd.
It also admitted contravening a health and safety regulation in that it failed to make a sufficient and suitable assessment of the health and safety risks.
Judge Anthony Goldstaub QC said: "The defendants [the company] didn't lay down, monitor and enforce a clear and practical structure for the management of health and safety at their hotel, particularly with regard to the safety of their guests for the use of the swimming pool.
"Indeed, it seems to me the management of health and safety matters was imprecise and diffuse and the roles and responsibilities of the various managers and organisations involved were not clearly defined, clearly understood and forcefully pursued.
"There was a culture of complication and confusion and it was systemic. It was structural to the direction and management of the defendants from boardroom level down.
"They didn't get a grip on safety policies and procedures and in trying to get people to help them to do so, which was fair enough, they didn't co-ordinate the help and act on it efficiently."
The couple, who were having an affair, went swimming on the first day of their weekend break. Foday was found lying at the bottom of the pool and Kpakiwa was face down on the surface.
The pool, which had been in use since 1988, measured about 10m by 5m, but the deepest part at 1.9m was in the centre with abruptly steeply sloping slides - grain hopper style - at a gradient of 1:3.5.
There had been no other incidents recorded over the decades of its use, although a guest a year earlier had complained he had got into difficulties when he was surprised by the sudden slope. That criticism was not logged, the judge heard.
The judge said it was "a mystery" how both young, fit and healthy individuals could drown at the same time.
But he ruled that their tragic deaths were not caused by the hotel owner's health and safety failings. "The deaths seem to me to be wholly unexplained before this court, as before the coroner's inquest."
He added: "It's a possibility that the swimmers were taken somehow by surprise by the profile, somehow got themselves in difficulty as a result and so drowned.
"But it's not, in my judgement, a probability, particularly as they were two persons drowned at the same time. It seems very difficult to imagine how both can simultaneously become surprised and in difficulty by reason of the pool's profile.
"The true cause of the drownings is in doubt. It's not possible to say with any confidence there was a causative link between the defendants' failings and the unfortunate deaths."
The court heard that although there was a signing in procedure for the pool door access code, it wasn't always enforced when reception was busy. There was CCTV, but the monitor was kept in a cupboard with the door normally closed and it wasn't working at the time.
Contractors to Veladail had submitted health and safety audit reports in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and flagged up urgent consideration, but they were not acted upon.
Under Health and Safety Executive guidance, the profile and depth of the pool indicated there ought to be poolside supervision, said prosecutor Rory Clarke.
Mitigating for Veladail, Christian Du Cann expressed the hotel group's "extreme regret at the utter tragedy of two young fit people in circumstances almost unimaginable".
The pool had been used by children for lessons and by guests for decades with no reported safety concerns, apart from the one in 2012. There were signs immediately on entering and in the changing room alerting swimmers to check the layout among other warnings.
He outlined how there had already been financial loss to the company with "a substantial fall in sales" in the aftermath of the fatalities.
He argued that the admitted breaches did not directly cause the couple's deaths.
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