Suffolk: Heating engineer cleared of manslaughter

Annette Coe who died of carbon monoxide poisoning Annette Coe who died of carbon monoxide poisoning

Thursday, July 10, 2014
10:59 AM

A Suffolk heating engineer accused of killing a customer by failing to properly service their boiler has been cleared of manslaughter.

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Peter Sykes, 68, was found guilty on Tuesday of health and safety failings relating to work he carried out for Annette Coe, 72, who later died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Yesterday, following three days of deliberation, the jury at Norwich Crown Court found him not guilty of the more serious charge of manslaughter by gross negligence.

Mrs Coe, 72, the mother of William Coe who runs Coes stores in Suffolk and Essex, was found collapsed at her property in St Edmunds Road, Ipswich, on December 5, 2012 – 47 days after Sykes last serviced her oil-fired heating system. She was pronounced dead the following day.

William Carter, for the prosecution, had argued that Sykes’ failure to clear the flue during an annual inspection on October 19, 2012, caused a blockage, which resulted in “poisonous gas circulating around her home at fatal levels”.

“The defendant’s failure was grossly negligent to the extent, the crown alleges, that his actions amount to the criminal offence of manslaughter,” he said.

Two of Mrs Coe’s daughters, Sarah Licence and Bridget Coe, had raised the alarm on the evening of December 5, the court heard.

They became concerned after their mother, who lived alone, failed to answer the phone, and contacted William Coe, their brother, who arrived at the property at around 11pm.

He entered to find his mother lying unconscious on the floor and attempted resuscitation before paramedics took her to hospital.

Doctors described the level of carbon monoxide as “extremely high” and said nothing could be done. She died on December 6.

Sykes, of Castle Road, Hadleigh, insisted he had carried out a proper service in October and claimed it was also clean and operational when he returned on December 3 to fit a replacement solenoid coil.

The self-employed heating engineer, who had been servicing Mrs Coe’s boiler for more than 40 years, maintained that a sudden fracture with the heat exchanger – where fresh air meets heated air – had led to the blockage.

He said he followed a methodical routine from which he never deviated and would always check the flue and chimney for blockages.

“That would be the most important thing,” he said.

“It’s a case of life and I value life a lot more than just skipping and skiving on a routine.”

The jury, however, found him guilty under the Health and Safety at Work Act Section 3 (2) for failing to undertake his duty in such a way as to prevent exposing Mrs Coe to risks to her health and safety.

Sykes was also found guilty under the same act in respect to boiler inspections he carried out at Melvyn Smith’s property in Raydon and Mary Blyton’s gas heating system in Woodbridge.

He will return to court for sentencing at a later date.

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