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Fife hotel boss admits fault after guest’s stairwell death plunge

Declan Howard finally appeared in court after the 2019 death of hotel guest Niall Vernon.

Delan Howard, Drummonds, Niall Vernon
Declan Howard (left) pled guilty to health and safety breaches which led to the death of Niall Vernon (right) in Drummonds, Markinch. Image: Supplied by Digby Brown/DC Thomson

A hotel boss has finally appeared at a Fife court to face justice following the death of a guest in Markinch in 2019.

Niall Vernon, from Norwich, died at Drummonds, Markinch on November 20 2019 after falling in a dark emergency stairwell.

Lawyers for his family say he was searching for a linen cupboard.

A lengthy police probe established there were no suspicious circumstances.

Hotel owner and head chef Declan Howard, 32, from Crieff, has spent the last few years working in Spain and returned recently to Scotland.

At Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court, he pled guilty to breaching the Health and Safety Act between September 19 and November 20 2019 by failing to ensure people were not exposed to risk at the Balbirnie Street hotel.

A consequence of his failure to ensure adequate lighting in the stairwell was Mr Vernon’s fall and death.

Drummond Hotel Markinch death investigation
Police remained on the scene for several days. Image: Steve Brown/ DC Thomson.

Prosecutor Nicola Gillespie, of the health and safety investigations unit, told the court Howard was the sole director of Howard Hospitality Ltd, which took over the lease of 11-bedroom Drummonds in August 2019.

She said Niall Vernon had been staying in a first floor room for nine days after his marriage broke down, before the tragedy.

A post-mortem examination confirmed the cause of death to be “complications of multiple blunt force trauma injuries in a man with chronic alcohol misuse”.


The court heard Mr Vernon’s dead body was found by a housekeeper at the foot of an internal emergency stairwell at the hotel at about 10am.

He had last been seen alive at around 9.20pm the previous night by another resident.

Declan Howard
Declan Howard.

The court heard that earlier that day, Howard had heard banging noises from an electrical cupboard upstairs and found Mr Vernon lying on the ground, confused and struggling to find his room.

Howard formed the view Mr Vernon was intoxicated and assisted him to the room and contacted police.

Two officers came to check on Mr Vernon’s welfare and formed the view he was sober and coherent but had consumed some alcohol.

The officers had no concerns and left.

Drummond Hotel, Markinch with police outside
Mr Vernon died at Drummonds in Markinch. Image: Steve Brown/ DC Thomson

Family grief

Ms Gillespie said Mr Vernon’s son Arron Rampling has advised his father’s death has had “a significant and longstanding impact upon him”.

Niall’s son, Arron Rampling, welcomed Howard’s conviction but said he was frustrated by the delay in justice.

In a statement via lawyers Digby Brown, he said: “The death of my father had a profound impact on us all and the completely avoidable nature of his passing makes it all the harder to come to accept.

Niall Vernon
Niall Vernon. Image: Supplied by Digby Brown.

“The conviction is welcome but this is not closure – it’s simply an end to a set of proceedings that frankly should never have been necessary, had that hotel been managed properly.

“I’d finally just like to thank my friends, family and the community for their support over the last four years but we’d now like to have our privacy respected as we try to look to the future.”

Hotel failures

During subsequent investigations the lighting in the stairwell was found to be defective.

Emergency lighting function tests were not conducted in September or October 2019 and Howard had noted the inadequate lighting in the stairwell in a fire safety failures record sheet on September 19.

Markinch hotel stairwell
The stairwell. Image: Crown Office.

Howard later ensured remedial work was carried out and a prohibition notice on first-floor rooms using the stairwell was removed on November 26.

In January 2020 Howard advised he had terminated the lease on the property and his final day of operation was February 9.

The court heard the company was compulsorily struck off on June 15 2021.

A LinkedIn page shows he has been working in Spanish restaurants since July 2020.

Police outside Drummonds Hotel, Markinch
Police outside Drummonds Hotel, Markinch. Image: DC Thomson.

Ms Gillespie said: “Howard Hospitality Ltd failed to conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk to health and safety of persons not in their employment.

“There was a failure to provide a safe means of escape for room residents or persons attending the first-floor function room, who would be directed to the fire exit located on the first-floor accommodation corridor, in the event of an emergency.

“This was due to a failure to maintain standard and emergency lighting in the fire exit stairwell, resulting in inadequate levels of illumination.

“This failure caused Mr Vernon to fall, whereby he sustained the fatal injuries”.

Sentencing deferred

Sheriff Steven Borthwick told Howard: “This is obviously a very serious matter and is an imprisonable offence.

“Before the court is able to decide how best to deal with the case, I will require to obtain a criminal justice social work report”.

Sentencing was adjourned until June 19 to obtain reports.

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