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Cases - manslaughter - gross negligence - Peter Kite, Daily Telegraph 9 December 1994

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Director jailed for canoe trip manslaughter

By Paul Stokes

 

THE managing director of an activity centre responsible for the deaths of four teenagers on a canoeing trip was jailed for three years yesterday.

Peter Kite, 45, and his company, which was fined 60,000, were each convicted of four counts of manslaughter at the end of a 16-day trial at Winchester Crown Court.

 

At the same time the judge, Mr Justice Ognall, demanded Government action over the authority, control, supervision and, if necessary, intervention, of commercially-run centres.

 

"Nothing else will do," the judge said. "Our parents and teachers entrust their children to those who run activity holidays. The potential for injury and death is all too obvious for safety rules to be left to the inadequate vagaries of self-regulation."

 

'Parents entrust their children to those who run activity holidays'

He asked for his remarks to be conveyed to Mrs Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, and matters arising from the rescue and Coastguard involvement to go to Mr Brian Mawhinney, the Transport Secretary.

 

As the jury foreman returned majority verdicts of 10 to two on each of the four charges against him and OLL Ltd, of Aldwych, London, Kite mouthed the words "unbelievable" before standing open-mouthed.

 

As managing director he drew a salary of more than 46,000 a year while centre instructors were paid 50 a week. The organisation that ran the expedition, Active Learning and Leisure, was formed six years before the disaster with 625,000 of financial backing from three City investment firms.

 

Kite's co-defendant, Joseph Stoddart, 53, manager of the St Albans Challenge Centre in Lyme Regis, Dorset, when the deaths took place, was formally acquitted of four manslaughter charges after the jury failed to reach a majority verdict. He left the court in tears.

 

'Notice you were given in chillingly clear terms of the risks you were runnning'

Mr Justice Ognall told Kite, married with a six-month-old daughter, that he had been convicted of criminal negligence. "But what clearly separates this case from any other of its kind is the notice you were given in chillingly clear terms of the risks you were runnning.

 

"Those dire forecasts became a reality with your complete failure to heed it and to act. Four young lives were lost in dreadful circumstances because they and their friends were taken on an expedition which common sense alone dictated should never have happened."

 

The four sixth formers who died - Dean Sayer, 17, and 16-year-olds Simon Dunne, Claire Langley and Rachel Walker - were on a school activity week at the St Albans Centre. They were among a group of eight "total novices" and their teacher from Southway Comprehensive, Plymouth.

 

Their instructors, Mr Tony Mann, 25, and Ms Karen Gardner, 23, were unqualified to take the group on a trip two miles across Lyme Bay and back, and the judge said Kite's gross negligence also "grievously compromised" them. The group capsized one by one as they drifted helplessly out to sea.

 

You were more interested in sales than safety

The judge referred to a letter written to Kite nine months before the tragedy by two former instructors at the centre, warning him of possible fatal consequences unless safety was improved.

 

He said: "You must have known what was required of you and your company. I regret to say that to a degree you were more interested in sales than safety. The sentence I pass on you cannot bring those children back, but it must also serve to send a message to those who offer and conduct these activities.".

 

The judge paid tribute to the four survivors, Marie Rendle, Samantha Stansby, Johanna Willis and Emma Hartley but added: "Any lessons learned or tributes paid to those who survived can be of no comfort to the parents of the children who died.

 

"Condolences are such empty words. They died on the brink of their adult lives even though they were in truth still only children."

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