A COUNCIL could be hit with a substantial fine today after a severely disabled man living in supported accommodation drowned in his bath.
Durham County Council last year admitted two breaches of health and safety regulations following the death of 50-year-old John Wood over two years ago.
Mr Wood died after being left alone in the bath at his bungalow in Bishop Auckland, on November 12, 2006. In November, magistrates, who could have set a maximum fine of £25,000, declined jurisdiction and adjourned the case to be heard at the crown court, which has the power to impose an unlimited fine.
A judge at Durham Crown Court is due to pass sentence today. Councillors have been warned by senior officers that the fine could reach six figures.
At the last hearing before Peterlee magistrates, barrister David Travers entered guilty pleas on behalf of the council on two counts brought by the Health and Safety Executive.
He said the council admitted failing to ensure the safety of Mr Wood and failing to make suitable assessments in relation to his care.
Prosecuting, HM Inspector of Health and Safety Richard Bishop told the magistrates how Mr Wood – who was disabled and had severe learning disabilities and epilepsy – was being given a bath at the accommodation.
He told the court: “Mr Wood was left on his own for several minutes while the only member of staff present had to go to support another person.
“On his return, Mr Wood was under the water, and despite the staff member’s best efforts, Mr Wood was pronounced dead.”
In mitigation, Mr Travers said that following Mr Wood’s death steps had been taken at once by the council, which had “reacted with great vigour”.
The council had admitted the failures. He added: “It is a public authority, and while that doesn’t mean it is immune from criminal processes, any financial penalty will impact on its duties to fund services.”
Magistrates said: “Mr Wood died by drowning in the bath while a carer attended to others.
“We have a public duty and we are declining jurisdiction.”
Mr Wood had lived at the supported accommodation, which is owned by a housing association and staffed by the council’s integrated learning disabilities service, for nine years.
He was one of dozens of adults moved into accommodation within the community after the council closed down residential hostels 12 years ago.
His bungalow is one of a number of houses in the county occupied by groups of people who suffer from severe physical or mental disabilities. They have access to support workers 24 hours a day
Following a four-day inquest in June last year, Durham Coroner Andrew Tweddle said he planned to write to the county council to highlight the “systemic failures” that had led to the incident.
The inquest returned a verdict of accidental death.
A spokesman for Durham County Council confirmed that the authority was due in court today.