A ‘SLIPSHOD’ fireplace fitter has been jailed for eight months after a six-year-old Beaconsfield girl was killed when a mantelpiece he had fitted fell on top of her.
Isabella Pritchard – known as Bella – suffered ‘catastrophic’ injuries and could not be saved by paramedics after the collapse of the limestone fireplace in her Beaconsfield family home in 2012.
Christopher Elmer pleaded guilty this month to a breach of health and safety in failing to prevent the tragedy and was slammed for his carelessness by judge John Reddihough at today’s sentencing.
The court heard how the 39-year-old had failed to properly secure the 226-kilo fireplace to the living room wall, using only adhesive and not the recommended mechanical fixings.
And the judge said he hoped Elmer’s eight-month sentence would act as a deterrent to other self-employed workmen carrying out jobs for which they are out of their depth.
He said: “This case is a dreadful tragedy. Your failure to properly and safely fix a very heavy fireplace in the Pritchards’ family home led to it coming away from the wall and falling on Bella Pritchard, a six-year-old little girl, and killing her.
“The effect of that dreadful event on her parents and three brothers will last for the rest of their lives and there will also be that void in their lives. You were trusted by that family to fix that fireplace.”
He added: “Your work was slipshod and you gave very little or no thought to that fireplace coming away from the wall and injuring or potentially killing someone as so sadly happened.
“It must be made clear, people who go into homes professing to be skilled workmen in this way must be punished."
Six-year-old Bella, who attended the private Maltman’s School for Girls in Gerrards Cross, was playing in her parents’ newly built five-bedroomed home on July 7, 2012 when the tragedy occurred.
She was rushed to Wexham Park Hopsital after the mantelpiece and cushion stones on the fireplace - a combined weight of 86 kilos - collapsed. She died later from her injuries.
At the time of her death, her headmistress Joanna Pardon described her as having an ‘infectious love of life’.
Elmer, of Goring Way, Greenford, Middlesex, was due to stand trial for manslaughter by gross negligence, but the Crown Prosecution Service offered no evidence.
He became self employed in 2007 but had received no formal training in his occupation other than shadowing other fitters for a few months.
He had fitted the limestone fire surround just over eight months before the tragedy.
Prosecutor Iain Wicks said: “It is self evident that the fitting of such heavy stones requires some expertise and considerable care on the part of the fitter. This is not a task for the unsupervised DIY enthusiast to have a go at.
He added: “The prosecution asserts the defendant was in serious breach of his legal duty in terms of his approach not only in the opinion of the experts who looked into the aftermath of the incident, not only when compared to the outcomes of laboratory tests but also when measured against the practice of ordinary fitters on the ground.”
Elder had been contracted by the house builder to fit the ‘Clarendon Bolection’ limestone fire surround after Bella's father John Pritchard had personally chosen the model.
Mr Wicks told the court four other fitters approached said they would have used mechanical fixings and not relied solely on adhesives to hold the stones in place.
And tests carried out at Imperial College in London showed with only adhesives in place, the stones could be dislodged with force proportional to that of a girl of Bella’s height and weight.
Elmer was also found to have used the adhesive ‘sparingly’.
However, the fireplace fitting industry is not regulated by any governing body, and no British Standard relating to the model exists.
The court heard how guidance on best practice from the Stone Federation is available, but even that has been updated since Bella’s death to prevent further tragedies.
But despite the lack of guidance on proper fitting methods, judge Reddihough said it remained “common sense” to use mechanical, metal fixings rather than rely solely on glue-like adhesive.
Speaking for the defence, Giuseppina Silvio said Elmer felt deep remorse for what had happened, suffering from depression as a result of the guilt he felt for causing Bella’s death.
She said: “He accepts he had shortcomings but that is how he learned (to fit fireplaces). He accepts that it is because of these shortcomings that this child died.
“He has said he worked underneath this fireplace and he wished it had fallen on him and not Bella Pritchard. He understands he had destroyed their lives and not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of what happened.”
As well as an eight-month custodial sentence, Elder was ordered to pay £1000 in costs during the hearing at Reading Crown Court today.