Two young men working on a Tory peer’s country estate died after being ordered to hand-pick apples from a “highly dangerous” container, so their boss could win a prestigious national fruit competition, a court heard.
The two were discovered unconscious in an apple store on the 2,500 acre property owned by the Earl of Selborne, John Palmer.
One of the men was told by farm manager Andrew Stocker, 57, to enter the cooler – which had an atmosphere of just 1 per cent oxygen – and select apples while holding his breath, the court heard. The process of entering without breathing apparatus was known as ‘scuba diving’ among workers at the Blackmoor Estate near Liss, Hants.
Winchester Crown Court heard the workers were hand-picking the very best apples so that their boss could enter the Marden Fruit Show in West Malling, Kent, which claims to showcase the best of British fruit.
The cooler was kept cold using nitrogen which means the atmosphere contained a mere 1 per cent oxygen, way below the 21 per cent needed for humans to breathe normally. Jurors heard the approved and safe method of using a metal hook to retrieve the apples was not deemed ‘adequate enough’ by Stocker, as the fruit had to be a particular size for the competition.
But after attempting to retrieve the finest apples, the two young men were discovered unconscious in the container. Although frantic colleagues tried in vain to save the two young men, they were pronounced dead at the scene.
The farm manager; Mr Stocker, of Bordon, Hants, is on trial at Winchester Crown Court after denying two charges of manslaughter through gross negligence.
The court heard Stocker had won previous awards at the Marden Fruit Show and enjoyed the ‘kudos’ it brought while taking a blase approach to the dangers of retrieving the fruit. Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting, described the deaths of the two men as ‘an accident waiting to happen’.
The jurors heard how the men would take a deep breath before entering the ‘controlled atmosphere’ inside the container, via a small hatch. They heard that the only way a person would survive would be if breathing apparatus was being used. The moment the person’s air ran out and they tried to draw a breath would result in them collapsing and they would succumb to the effect of oxygen deprivation.
The fatal result would have been inevitable in such cramped and dangerous circumstances.
Winchester Crown Court was told the person in charge was Stocker and that he was senior manager. They heard that he was responsible and was very experienced in this field of work and spent many years in charge of the packhouse. He was undoubtedly well aware of the dangers but had obviously taken the decision to ignore these risks in the pursuit of winning.