It took Britain more than 20 years of debate and legal argument to draw up and pass a law on corporate manslaughter. It finally became law in the summer.
But while this so far untested law could become highly contentious for the UK business travel industry, a significant number of travel managers does not fully understand just what responsibilities it lays at their doors.
This became clear at the discussion on the Corporate Manslaughter Act at the Management Solutions/ACTE Forum in the London last week.A succession of travel buyers asked fundamental questions about what the Act might mean to them.
To recap, in 1987 188 people died when a Townsend Thoresen cross-channel ferry left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge without first closing its bows doors. The ferry was hit by a wave and the water flooded and overturned the vessel.
The UK government attempted to prosecute those it felt were responsible but failed. There was none who was demonstrably to blame, rather it was a collective failure by the company. But there was no Act covering this. Hence - eventually - the new law.
This states that a company can be guilty of corporate manslaughter if senior executives so mismanage its affairs to the point of gross negligence, an employee dies.
But there is much doubt as to just what it does mean and how the courts will interpret it. More worryingly, a poll by the UK and Ireland Institute of Travel Management (ITM), carried out a few weeks after the new law came in, found that fewer than 10% of travel managers fully understood it.
(ITM subsequently set up a legal helpline to assist its members.)
Cynthia Barbor, a partner with a law firm K L Gates, told the MS/ACTE Forum that it was the aim of the Act to address failures by senior management.
But she said this did include travel managers who had a duty of care to their travellers. "You have to give the individual employee an informed choice. You must be frank with them," she said. "If you don't know something, should you have reasonably known it if you were doing your job properly?"
But how far should this go? One travel manager asked what was the situation if a traveller who had gone outside company travel policy and found himself in trouble or danger. By making their own bookings, had they relieved the travel manager of his or her duty of care?
Ms Barbor said that business travellers did have a responsibility to themselves provided they had had an informed choice. She added that in the circumstances described, she "could not see how you could be responsible."
Another said she had as many as 6,500 and it was difficult to know where they all were. "We can only ask them to follow policy. What else can we do?"
This time Matthew Judge, managing director of The Anvil Group, a security company, said travel managers "probably had a duty to warn them. You don't necessarily have to know where they are going."
This however may just be a crucial point, for a trip to Paris may not be a risky as a trip to a country with an unstable government or which is a target of terrorists.
Another travel manager asked what was the situation if an employee died through gross negligence while abroad. With Whom and where was the responsibility then?
Ms Barbor said it was her reading of the Act that it applied when the decisions were taken in Britain.
There are also fears for travel management companies. Sue Kavanagh, until recently head of HR at Carlson Wagonlit Travel in the UK, said the
TMC had had a lot of discussions on what the Act might mean for them.
“Our view was that we had an advisory role to play for the customers to make sure clients knew where to go to find out the situation in a country where they were travelling.”
But it might not be abroad where the trouble happens. As Ms Kavanagh pointed out, a traveller is far more likely to die in a road accident in the UK than on a trip abroad. This brought in a whole new set of possible nightmare scenarios.
Should companies allow employees to use their own cars which may not be fully maintained, should they let them drive after a long haul flight, should they limit the number of hours a day that they can drive and should they ban them using any type of phone while driving.
It all still very much a grey area and until it is tested in the courts, that will remain the case.
But one extra point that came across in what was the best discussion BTE has heard on this thorny topic. The new law may be confined to Britain just now, but it was almost certain to be adopted by the EC or passed by individual European countries in the next few years.