The director of a stunt company has been given a 12-month community order for health and safety breaches after the death of a stuntman who was killed during a human cannonball show.
Matthew Cranch, 24, died after sustaining multiple injuries when a safety net intended to break his fall collapsed as he hurtled to the ground.
He had been fired from a lorry-mounted cannon in front of hundreds of spectators during Scott May’s Daredevil Stunt Show at the Kent county showground in Detling on 25 April 2011.
Maidstone crown court heard a mechanism that triggered the release of the safety net was not properly set.
An inquest jury last year ruled the death was an accident.
Cranch’s boss Scott May, 40, of Stunts UK Ltd, was sentenced at the crown court to the community order, including 150 hours of unpaid work, after pleading guilty at Maidstone magistrates court in July to a health and safety charge.
A judge said his offence was “committed through omission rather than act”.
A guilty plea was also entered on behalf of Stunts UK Ltd, which was fined £100,000.
Prosecutors said May, of Higher Bosavern, St Just, near Penzance, Cornwall, had “failed to discharge the duty” as an employer to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of employees, including Cranch.
Mark Watson, prosecuting, said the mechanism that triggered the release of the safety net was not properly set and could be unintentionally falsely closed, leading to the net dropping when the lorry recoiled upon firing of the cannon.
Watson told the court: “In blunt terms, witnesses describe it being like a car door. You could hear it shut with a definite clunk.
“The problem with the falsely closed position is that it looked like it was engaged, a bit like a half-closed car door.”
Watson said the quick release mechanism was only intended to be released when the stuntman had been caught in the net.
But Watson went on: “In summary, there was simply no need for there to be a quick release mechanism attached to this safety net in those circumstances.
“It introduced a wholly unacceptable level of risk in relation to this stunt which was unnecessary in practice.”
Watson said May had not deliberately breached his duty but he had “hands-on control”, was responsible for safety and was present on the day of the tragedy. He described the firm’s health and safety as “lackadaisical”.
Watson said: “There were a number of warning signs or, at the very least, lost opportunities in the run-up to the accident which should have prompted Mr May and his company to step back and reconsider the safety of the stunt.”
He pointed to examples of two previous near misses, including problems with the tension and issues where the stuntman nearly hit the ground.
Watson said induction and training for staff was informal, and it was telling that one of the few documents employees were asked to sign was a disclaimer.
Cranch, who was living in Newquay, Cornwall, had performed the showpiece human cannonball stunt five times before the tragedy. He had joined the stunt team about four weeks before his death.
Kent police said in December 2012 that no criminal prosecution would be brought over Cranch’s death and the matter was handed to Maidstone borough council, which prosecuted May and Stunts UK Ltd.
In footage shown at the inquest, one of Cranch’s colleagues was heard giving a “three, two, one” countdown on the public address system before he shouted “fire”.
Cranch could then be seen being propelled from the cannon amid a cloud of pyrotechnic smoke as the safety net in front of him suddenly collapsed.
Despite efforts by medics, he died at Maidstone hospital.
Relatives described Cranch in a statement read in court as a “free spirit” whose death they could “never accept or recover from”.
Cranch’s mother, Pauline, who sat in court alongside his father, Michael, fought back tears as part of the victim impact statement was read.
In it, Cranch was described as an intelligent, happy young man with a sense of adventure who loved juggling, unicycles and skateboards.
Part of the family’s statement read: “We will always be grateful and thankful for his love and the time we were able to spend together.”
In mitigation, Tanya Robinson, defending, said May was “truly sorry” to Cranch’s relatives.
Robinson said: “Mr May considered members of staff like extended family. In the immediate aftermath, he was not even sure that he wanted to carry on with the business.”
Robinson said the business continues to trade but “things are very difficult” and the human cannonball stunt is no longer performed, with the firm concentrating on other thrill-seeking areas, including fires and driving stunts.
She said May had no knowledge the mechanism that triggered the safety net could be set in a falsely closed position because it had never happened in the previous 1,000 performances of the human cannonball stunt.
She said the company did not run a “cowboy operation” and that safety was considered a top priority and equipment was well-maintained.
“They were not ignoring risks,” Robinson said. “It just did not occur to them with regard to this mechanism and the way it worked.”
Robinson said a number of changes to the stunt firm’s operation have since taken place, adding: “The nub of the case is that the defendants failed to recognise the risks.”
Judge Jeremy Carey also imposed an £80,000 costs order.