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.