High Court rules that hire firm rather than contractor was responsible for operation during fatal crane collapse.
Crane hire company Hewden Tower Cranes could face an £8m bill for damages after the Canary Wharf crane collapse in May 2000 in which three workers died.

The High Court ruled this week that Hewden, rather than crane-operator Cleveland Bridge, was responsible for controlling the equipment at the Docklands site where the men, all employees of the Hewden Stuart subsidiary, fell 450 ft.

The judge based his ruling on the fact that an industry-wide contract agreement stipulates that the erection and dismantling of cranes is the responsibility of the company from which the equipment is hired. His Honour Judge Seymour ruled that the hire firm, in like manner, was also responsible for the operation of the equipment and liable for damages.

The accident occurred on 21 May as the height of the crane was being increased by the insertion of sections using a climbing frame supplied by Hewden Tower Cranes, a subsidiary of Hewden Stuart (see factfile, below).

Hewden Tower Cranes claimed in court that this process, know as "climbing", ought to be treated as a normal operation for which the hirer of the crane was responsible.

The rejection of this defence will have widespread ramifications for standard plant hire contracts, known as the CPA model conditions (see end of story).

Martin Scott, a partner at Walker Morris solicitors, which represented operator Cleveland Bridge, said the CPA model conditions contract would now have to be revised.

This proves that the standard contract needs to be reviewed

Solicitor Martin Scott

He said the ruling meant that operations carried out by crane hirers after the erection of equipment would have to be included explicitly in contracts.

He said: "The CPA model conditions is a much-criticised contract agreement that plant hire firms force contractors to use. This ruling proves that it needs to be reviewed."

Scott said the ruling meant that Cleveland Bridge now only had to prove that the collapse happened during the "climbing" process to exonerate itself of responsibility for the accident. If it succeeded in demonstrating that that was the case then responsibility for the incident passed to Hewden. A Health and Safety Executive spokesperson said its report on the crane collapse was not yet available.

He said: "It is a very complex investigation and it is taking time for the evidence to be assessed."

The men who died in the accident were Peter Clark, 33, of London; Martin Burgess, 31, of Castleford, West Yorkshire; and Michael Whittard, 39, of Leeds. They were all employees of Hewden Tower Cranes of Castleford. Hewden and Cleveland declined to comment. Hewden is however intending to appeal.

HSE inquiry into the Canary Wharf crane accident

The Health and Safety Executive’s inquiry is focusing on a failure in the crane’s self-erecting mechanism. The tower crane, known as the luffing jib, is understood to have collapsed while its height was being increased. The crane has a structural collar, known as the climbing frame, fitted around the top of the mast. To increase its height, hydraulic jacks at the base of the climbing frame are extended, pushing up the collar and, with it, the top section of the crane – including the cab, jib and counterweight. At this point, the climbing frame carries the weight of the top section. The operator then manoeuvres a new mast section through the open side of the climbing frame using the jib, and the jacks are lowered. An equipment failure during this procedure may have occurred on Sunday 21 May 2000.