A technologically advanced door on the most recent Star Wars film set caused a serious accident that in fact could have been even worse.

The door replicated one used on the original film set. But 40 years ago, it was operated by a guy with a pulley and posed little risk to Mr Ford. The new system is operated remotely by a hydraulic system. So when Mr Ford thought that he could just walk through the door, he got a bit of a shock when the door swung back and knocked him over, forcing him to the ground. It had been accidentally activated by someone else.

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) prosecutor stated that had the emergency stop mechanism not been pressed in time, it could have resulted in Mr Ford’s death. As it was, Mr Ford “merely” broke two bones in his left leg.

Technology brought about this dangerous situation. But were it not for the technology of the emergency stop, what Mr Ford experienced would have been a lot worse.

This film set was in the UK, using Disney-owned film production company Foodles. The workplace was therefore governed by UK health and safety law, for which the Health and Safety Executive is responsible. Breach of health and safety laws in this manner can result in criminal prosecution. The HSE investigation and prosecution could have proceeded in several ways – it may have been in response to a complaint by someone other than the HSE, or in response to an accident report by Foodles; it could even have followed a routine investigation.

Foodles appeared at a magistrates’ court on 26 July, where it pleaded guilty to two breaches of health and safety legislation. The case has now been transferred to a crown court to decide on the appropriate fine, which is due to take place on 22 August.

So what else is likely to affect the sentence? Helpfully, the definitive guidelines are online here.

In a nutshell, the inevitable fine that will be payable by the production company should reflect the extent to which they fell below the required legal standard of compliance. I will just mention a few of the key factors that will affect this assessment – though this should not be taken as judgment on ongoing issues that are due for a hearing; I have insufficient facts to comment on these issues.

  • As the HSE said, it was a foreseeable incident. And the concept of foreseeability is not limited to health and safety law. It’s also relevant to other breaches for which the production company may be liable – for instance negligence and occupier’s liability – which could result in quite high compensation.
  • How culpable was the company? The court will consider whether it was a deliberate breach or whether the company flagrantly disregarded the law (see page 5 of the guidelines in the link). If so, that would inflate the fine.
  • Had the company done a recent health and safety risk assessment of the film set? If they had not, they certainly fell below expected standards. If they did a risk assessment but missed this hazard, it might not be as bad.
  • What was the possible harm? As the guidelines say, proof of actual harm is not essential. Potential harm is enough; the prosecutor here says it may have caused death. The company may argue that because of the emergency stop, in reality death was not possible.
  • What was the company’s turnover – if you’re just starting your business, the fine should be proportionate to your circumstances.

By taking account of the mistakes this company made, you may be able to avoid making the same mistakes yourself. Certainly, you should do a health and safety risk assessment of the premises for which you are responsible – if you have five or more employees, it is a legal requirement to record the assessment in writing.

After identifying any risks, you should consider whether it is possible to eliminate the hazard completely or if not, reduce its risk of arising as far as you reasonably can. For example, could the company have just used an old fashioned mechanism? Mr Ford seems to think that with all their money, they may have used technology for the sake of it.

Not that there is anything particularly funny about this situation. However, it does remind me of a rather ironic parable: So picture this: there was once a fire in a great building in a small town inhabited by simpletons. All the people worked together, running with bucket after bucket of water from the well they had built at the highest point in town. After a hard night’s work, they finally put out the fire. As they huddled together in the cold, one of the elder statesmen gave a short sermon – “Let’s look on the bright side,” he said. “We should be thankful for the fire. Were it not for the light from the fire, how would we have been able to see to put the fire out?”

Ultimately, however, there is no gain to be had in lighting a fire just so that you can see to put it out.

We provide numerous guides and forms to assist small businesses in complying with health and safety law. A few can be found here. Alternatively, you may wish to join elXtr for access to a more extensive suite of health and safety supporting materials, including a template for a risk assessment. Finally, if you need assistance, especially if you’re worried about something that’s happened, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s what we’re here for.

You're on our blog and updates site, which is hosted by elXtr, a leading digital hub powered by the award-winning lawyers at LHS Solicitors LLP. Bringing you real law, made easy.

Law for the online generation starts here.