Morrisons loses appeal over death of employee with epilepsy

Published: May 23 2024
Last updated: May 23 2024

Grace Wood | Epilepsy Action has contacted Morrisons to offer first aid training as a result of Matthew’s death

Copyright: Jim Barton

Morrisons has lost its appeal to overturn convictions for health and safety failures, following the death of its employee Matthew Gunn.

Matthew, 27, had epilepsy. He fell from a staircase during a seizure at the Morrisons store in which he worked. Matthew died 12 days later as a result of head injuries.

He worked at the WM Morrisons store in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, and died in September 2014.

Epilepsy Action has contacted Morrisons to offer first aid training as a result of Matthew’s death.

Morrisons was fined £3.5 million in March last year after it was convicted of three health and safety offences. It also admitted a fourth charge.

At hearing on Wednesday at Gloucester Crown Court, the company’s lawyer said the health and safety laws had been incorrectly interpreted at trial.

Three judges, Lord Justice William Davis, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb and Judge Dennis Watson KC, dismissed the appeal bid, stating that steps “could have been taken” to mitigate the risks.

Lord Justice Davis said: “We accept that the staircase did not present a risk for almost all members of staff at the store.

“In our judgment that is not the point. It created a material risk to the health and safety of Matthew Gunn.”

Matthew, who worked as a shelf replenisher, regularly used the staircase to access his locker on the first floor of the shop, where he stored his belongings in line with company policy.

He never regained consciousness after his fall on September 25, 2014, and died on October 7.

Three and half months before his death, Matthew’s mother, Sue Goellner, had warned Morrisons managers of the risk to her son due to his frequent seizures.

The company was convicted in February 2023 of failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees and failing to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.

Sue, who attended Wednesday’s hearing via a video link, said her son’s death had “left a massive hole in my heart” and she had lost her job as a result and her marriage had ended.

Richard Atkins KC, representing Tewkesbury Borough Council, which brought the prosecution, said Morrisons was aware of the nature of Matthew’s epilepsy and had records of him falling on stairs previously.

He also told the court that while Matthew’s locker was initially on the ground floor of the store, it was later moved upstairs without a risk assessment being carried out.

Richard Matthews KC, for Morrisons, described the case as “tragic” but said a “control measure to forbid Matthew from using the stairs” was not an option.

He told the court that the stairs were a safe “means of access” and a lift was also available.

He said: “No one can or should suggest that every staircase, fixed staircase, in a workplace, with a lift, has to have a rule that epileptics who may have a severe epileptic seizure are not permitted to use it.”

He added: “If this court finds that as a matter of law, which it would have to do, a fixed permanent staircase used as a means of access amounted to that person a material risk to their health and safety, that has enormous ramifications.”

Refusing the appeal bid, Lord Justice Davis said: “There was ample evidence that the conduct of the company exposed Matthew to a real risk.

“The event that led to Matthew’s death was one that had been feared by his mother, his colleagues and the company’s occupational health officer.

“All these fears were made known to the company.”

Epilepsy Action deputy chief executive Rebekah Smith said: “We were extremely saddened to hear about Matthew Gunn’s death, who passed away after having a seizure at his place of work.

“What was even more distressing, was finding out that his death could have been prevented.

“Epilepsy is different for everyone, and so are the risks it poses, in the workplace and in every day life. But all people with epilepsy deserve the right to be able to work safely without worrying if appropriate risk assessments have taken place.

“Employers need to do better to protect their employees with epilepsy. This always starts with better awareness. We have reached out to Morrison’s to start a conversation about this. We hope they’ll listen.”