Wolverhampton Magistrates’ Court heard the “serious” fire safety dangers came to light during inspection visits by West Midlands Fire Service in the run-up to Christmas 2015 at the company’s JD Sports and Scotts stores in Merry Hill shopping centre in Brierley Hill, near Dudley. The officers discovered a fire exit blocked by metal clothing rails and an escape route blocked by crates and stock, reducing its width to just 30cm. Although the officers warned they would be revisiting, fire safety breaches were again identified when they returned two weeks later.
According to the Express and Star newspaper, which attended court, although the fire officers had instructed the company to clear the blocked fire exit and escape route during their initial inspection visit, when they returned two weeks later they “found the very same protected route and emergency exit blocked”. A risk assessment carried out by JD Sports in May 2014 had concluded an escape corridor to the rear of one of the stores was congested with packaging waste and should be cleared and then checked daily by a store manager, the newspaper reported. “It was plain that the company had been on notice of the problem at least 18 months prior to the December 2015 inspections,” said prosecutor Mark Jackson.
JD Sports Fashion plc, which pleaded guilty to six fire safety offences, reportedly told the court the fire safety breaches “arose from difficulties in managing stock levels” at the store, which had resulted in an “excess of materials”. According to the Express and Star, the company said it had been dealing with “an unprecedented volume of stock” when the inspections occurred, although its other fire detection and prevention systems were all in full working order at the time.
Representing JD Sports, Eleanor Sanderson reportedly said the company sincerely regretted the fire safety breaches, had since moved to a bigger store in the Brierley Hill shopping centre and had improved its stock ordering and management procedures.
After the case, Mick Norton, a fire inspection officer for West Midlands Fire Service, said: “It beggars belief that the company compromised the safety of their staff and Christmas shoppers in this way.
“In spite of our warning that we would be revisiting, breaches were again identified when we returned two weeks later.
“Retailers must realise they can’t put profit before people’s safety by over-stocking, reducing the width of escape routes and blocking fire exit routes.”
JD Sports Fashion plc was fined £10,000 for each of the six fire safety offences and ordered to pay prosecution costs of nearly £7,500.
In a statement issued after the case, JD Sports said: "We regret the circumstances that gave rise to this conviction under the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order. We accepted our failings at an early stage and cooperated fully with West Midlands Fire Service.
"The incident related to the high demand and lack of storage for stock in the busy Christmas period. We have since increased the size of the store. The health and safety of our customers and staff is our highest priority and the Court concluded that we have robust systems in place and a good fire safety record prior to this offence, with no previous convictions for an offence of this nature."
JD Sports Fashion plc reported revenues of £2.3bn in 2017 and “record” headline profits before tax and exceptional items of £244m in 2017, up 56% from £157m in 2016.