Morrisons loses fight against convictions over epileptic worker's death

Matthew Gunn died when he fell from the stairs during a seizure at the store in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, in September 2014
-Credit: (Image: Copyright: GNS)

Supermarket giant Morrisons has failed to overturn convictions regarding its health and safety failings following the death of an epileptic member of staff who fell down a store staircase during a seizure. The employee, Matthew Gunn, died of critical head injuries 12 days after falling at WM Morrisons' Tewkesbury store, in Gloucestershire, in September 2014.

The retail firm was hit with a £3.5 million fine in March last year when it was found guilty on three counts of health and safety breaches. Furthermore, they conceded to a fourth charge, having failed to give the Health and Safety Executive contact details of an individual they wanted to interview.

The Bradford-based company turned to the Court of Appeal for approval to contest the convictions, with lawyers telling a hearing on Wednesday that health and safety laws were misinterpreted during the trial. However, their appeal was rejected by a trio of judges who stipulated that actions "could have been taken" to alleviate the risks.

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Lord Justice William Davis commented: "We accept that the staircase did not present a risk for almost all members of staff at the store. In our judgment that is not the point. It created a material risk to the health and safety of Matthew Gunn."

Mr Gunn, a 27-year-old shelf stacker, frequently used the staircase to reach his locker on the first floor of the shop for storing his personal items as per company rules. Following his fall on September 25, 2014, Mr. Gunn never woke up again and tragically passed away on October 7 of the same year.

Gloucester Crown Court was told that Mr Gunn passed away three-and-a-half months after his mother had alerted the management about the risks posed to her son due to his frequent seizures, with the prosecution arguing there was a "highly likely high level of harm occurring".

In February 2023, Morrisons was found guilty of not ensuring the health, safety and welfare of its employees, neglecting to conduct a proper risk assessment for the health and safety of its staff, and failing to regularly review the risk assessments of its employees. The firm also pleaded guilty to an offence of not complying with a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector's request for contact details of an individual the inspector wished to interview, between May 26, 2015, and February 26, 2020.

Sue Goellner, Mr Gunn's mother, who joined the sentencing hearing via video link, expressed that her son's death had "left a massive hole in my heart", leading to the loss of her job and the end of her marriage.

Judge Moira Macmillan, delivering the sentence, stated that Morrisons "fell short of the standards expected" and did not adequately consider Mr Gunn's individual needs. During the hearing, Richard Atkins KC, representing Tewkesbury Borough Council, which initiated the legal action, highlighted that Morrisons was fully aware of Mr Gunn's medical condition and had documented instances of him falling on stairs as a result of his epilepsy. He argued that there was "nothing wrong with the outcome of the case".

The court heard that Mr Gunn's locker was initially located on the ground floor of the store, but was later moved upstairs without a risk assessment being conducted.

Richard Matthews KC, representing Morrisons, labelled the case as "tragic", but argued that a "control measure to forbid Matthew from using the stairs" was not feasible. He informed the court that the stairs were a safe "means of access" and a lift was also available for use.

Mr Matthews said: "No one can or should suggest that every staircase, fixed staircase, in a workplace, with a lift, has to have a rule that epileptics who may have a severe epileptic seizure are not permitted to use it."

"If this court finds that as a matter of law, which it would have to do, a fixed permanent staircase used as a means of access amounted to that person a material risk to their health and safety, that has enormous ramifications."

However, Lord Justice William Davis, alongside Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb and Judge Dennis Watson KC, rejected the appeal bid, stating: "There was ample evidence that the conduct of the company exposed Matthew Gunn to a real risk. The event that led to Matthew Gunn's death was one that had been feared by his mother, his colleagues and the company's occupational health officer. All these fears were made known to the company."

Tewkesbury Borough Council was also awarded £20,000 in costs by the judges.