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Legionnaires' trial sparks PI fear

The profession will face a huge hike in PI insurance premiums if the retrial of a Barrow-based architect accused of manslaughter over a series of deaths from legionnaires' disease records a guilty verdict.

The trial of Gillian Beckingham, head of design services at Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council, collapsed last Friday (22 April), with the jury unable to reach a verdict.

She had already been convicted of breaching health and safety regulations and is awaiting sentencing. But the Crown Prosecution Service has since announced that it has ordered a retrial over the manslaughter charges - a move that has reignited fears the case will lead to massive new PI costs if Beckingham is found guilty.

In the original trial the architect faced seven counts of manslaughter, following the outbreak of the killer bug at the Forum 28 arts centre in Barrow in the summer of 2002.

Richard Macauley, 88, Wendy Milburn, 56, Georgina Somerville, 54, Harriet Low, 74, Elizabeth Dixon, 80, June Miles, 56, and Christine Merewood, 55, all died following the outbreak.

Beckingham was accused of failing to ensure that the air-conditioning system was maintained to satisfactory levels.

It has emerged this week that the RIBA's practice department - which was offering advice to Beckingham's defence team - is extremely concerned at the consequences of the trial.

The department's director Richard Brindley compared a guilty verdict to impending new corporate manslaughter laws.

'This will have serious repercussions for the PI premiums, ' he said. 'It would be like the corporate manslaughter legislation, only it won't just be employers that can be held to account, it will be employees as well.

'If Beckingham is found guilty, then premiums will rise across the board. It would hugely increase the risk to insurers and create a whole load of new liabilities.

'The collapse of the first trial is not exactly a good news story, but it has at least averted a catastrophic piece of news, ' Brindley added.

Barrow-in-Furness District Council was also found guilty of breaching the health and safety regulations. It is as yet unclear when Beckingham's second trial will take place.

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