Adam Farrer represented the prosecution in a case brought by the Health and Safety Executive against the University of Northumbria at Newcastle.  The University had entered a guilty plea to the charge of exposing students to a risk to their safety in the course of a sports science practical exercise.   On 25th January 2017 the case was heard by HHJ Bindloss sitting at Newcastle Crown Court. 

The circumstances of the offence were that on 23rd March 2015 two second year Applied Sport and Exercise Science students at the University volunteered during a class to take part in a practical exercise designed to measure the effects of caffeine on the body during exercise. The two students should have been given of 0.30grams and 0.32grams of caffeine respectively. However, due to errors in calculating the dose of caffeine made by the laboratory technicians (who multiplied body weight by 0.4 as opposed to 0.004), the two students were erroneously given (in a water and orange juice solution) some 30.7grams and 32grams of caffeine respectively. This was 100 times the correct dosage and almost double a potentially fatal dose.

In the preparation of the caffeine by students the calculations had been incorrectly made and no one, including two lab technicians or the senior lecturer in charge of the experiment, checked to ensure that the dose of caffeine had been correctly calculated. This is despite the senior lecturer being aware of 3 earlier incidents involving caffeine overdoses, as he had explained to the students in his lecture earlier the same morning.

The two students suffered violent side effects within minutes of drinking the solution including dizziness, blurred vision, vomiting, shaking and rapid heartbeat. Both required hospital treatment, including spending a number of days in intensive care and suffered life-threatening reactions.  Fortunately, both students went on to make a full physical recovery.

The Court heard evidence that the ingestion of 18grams of caffeine had resulted in a fatality and the risk of caffeine overdose was known by the University. HHJ Bindloss found the University was highly culpable for not having in place any risk assessment for the caffeine exercise, failing to have a system to check the dose and failing to adequately train its staff. Further, the Judge accepted that supervision of the exercise was inadequate. The Judge accepted that the deficient system was long standing and it was a matter of good fortune that it had not ended with a fatality.  HHJ Bindloss imposed a fine in the sum of £400,000 (plus costs), after giving credit for the early guilty plea, its good character, steps taken to improve its systems and recognising the University was not a profit making organisation.

Adam Farrer is a member of the Inquests, Public Inquiries and Coronial Law group at No5 Barristers’ Chambers.