Guilty plea over tractor pull death

Andrew Blake
Andrew Blake
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A company has pleaded guilty to health and safety failures over the death of a competitor crushed at an international tractor pulling event.

Father-of-three Joannes van Aalphen, 58, got trapped beneath the machine he was pulling at the annual Great Eccleston championships, near Preston, in August 2007.

Agricultural machinery hire firm AW Blake, which provided the equipment, pleaded guilty to a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act at Preston Crown Court yesterday.

And it emerged in court that the company, based near Carlisle, was not insured for the accident and could be forced to sell up or close down.

A civil claim by Dutchman Mr van Aalphen’s family could cost the firm “in excess of £550,000”, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecutor Richard Bradley said.

However, company director Andrew Blake was cleared of any personal blame after the HSE offered no evidence over a similar charge faced by him following a not guilty plea.

Dressed in a dark suit and blue shirt and tie, Mr Blake was in court to hear how his firm had not “taken all reasonable and appropriate precautions to prevent that risk to Mr van Aalphen’s health and safety” as he drove the Mighty Challenger sled. The weight box on the sled hit his tractor, the court was told, trapping him.

Mr Bradley said it was a “matter of bad management” that AW Blake’s vehicle was not insured for motorsport, despite that being its sole use.

In the firm’s defence, Dominic Kay said he “took exception” to the company being described as badly managed and said: “The insurance policy in place is an insurance policy for a hire company.

“It’s primary area of business is hiring agricultural machinery and plant. It seems it (Mighty Challenger) was on a policy that only included ‘up to the point of hire’ and would then be covered by the insurance policy of the hirer.

“In this situation, if it had been thought about, it should probably have been recognised a piece of machinery like the sled is different to a digger being hired to a construction company.

“It’s a situation where they had a proper insurance policy in place for several years and they were operating under the belief that the Mighty Challenger could operate under the same policy.”

Mr Kay said AW Blake Ltd, said to have “fixed assets” of £1.7m, had an overdraft of around £360,000 but said the bank had indicated it wanted to reduce this by £200,000.

Depending on the outcomes of court cases over the next few weeks, he said the company “will almost inevitably have to be sold or forced into closure”. The company’s 2010 accounts showed a pre-tax profit of just over £87,000.

Judge Stuart Baker adjourned sentencing until June 6 for more information over the firm’s ability to pay fines and compensation.