Sunderland swingers’ club owner admits risking punters’ lives due to serious fire safety breaches

Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.
Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.

The proprietor of a Sunderland swingers’ club has admitted fire safety breaches so serious they could have led to a ‘substantial loss of life’.

As many as 60 people could be inside the premises at Vivente at any given time, when on April 22, 2015, a fire service safety audit was carried out, Sunderland magistrates heard.

Vivente, Hudson Road, Sunderland

Vivente, Hudson Road, Sunderland

The front door and only escape route was locked, with the key held by club boss Katherine High, and the back door was roller-shuttered.

People were allowed to smoke inside the premises and there were candles, flammable wall coverings and equipment posing fire risks.

Jim Wotherspoon, prosecuting on behalf of Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Authority, said: “There were a number of people on the premises and they were all told to leave because of safety concerns.

“The only accessible door to the premises was from Hudson Road.

If she had been before the court after a fire and substantial loss of life, you worships would not be dealing with it, but that is the level of risk we are talking about in this matter

Jim Wotherspoon, prosecuting

“The basement contained various items for the use of members of the club.

“There was plastic lining on the walls, it was clearly not fully refurbished and work was still being carried out.”

Mr Wotherspoon said the basement contained candles and ignition sources and had no means of escape.

“The dangers of premises in he basement were aggravated by the presence of equipment in that area and the potential risk of people using that equipment,” he added.

Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.

Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.

“There was no fire detection to warn in the event of fire.

“There was an alarm panel, but the alarm wasn’t able to operate in any event.

“If switched on, the alarm would sound constantly, so it was switched off.

“Miss High admitted that she had not carried out a fire risk assessment and said so in her interview.

Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.

Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.

“She said ‘it’s just something that I didn’t think about doing’.”

Mr Wotherspoon said there were 16 people inside at the time and added that the premises were unfinished.

He said: “The rooms had specialist coverings on the walls to add some specific ambience, for want of a better word, which would have assisted in the spread of fire.”

An investigation into the breaches cost the fire authority £9,663, the court heard.

Mr Wotherspoon added: “She is just naive, not fully aware of the implications of this, which could have been extremely serious.

“If she had been before the court after a fire and substantial loss of life, you worships would not be dealing with it, but that is the level of risk we are talking about in this matter.”

Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.

Katherine Ann High, proprietor of Vivente private members club.

High, of Archer Road, Farringdon, admitted five counts of failing to comply with Article 8 to 22 and 38 requirements or prohibitions, where failure risks death and serious injury in case of fire, under The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

Duncan Emmerson, defending, said: “As you have heard, the club was shut shortly thereafter and has not been in operation since, and we are going back two years.

“This was a business set up by Miss High.

“When she first applied for a business licence from the council it was rejected.

“The decision was overturned on appeal and the premises was allowed to be used as a private members’ club.

“The council did an investigation and identified certain matters.”

Mr Emmerson said High had acted in ignorance, rather than wilfully having breached the rules.

But he said: “She is the person in control and she fully accepts that.

“There was smoking inside the premises, but there was a bucket of water into which cigarettes were put.”

Mr Emmerson said that clients were unable to use the designated smoking shelter outside due to passers-by throwing bottles at them.

He also said candles were only lit for publicity photographs and were not in use all of the time.

He added: “This sadly occurred due to a lack of experience and lack of knowledge on her part and she has shown remorse for her naivety in these breaches.

“She resides with her partner and children and is not working at the moment.”

Bench chairman Pauline Barrett said: “We are aware there are a number of mitigating factors, however, we feel that these offences warrant more than a financial penalty.

“We are therefore committing this case to crown court for sentence.

“We will be asking probation to prepare reports and you will be notified of a date to attend and that will be in about four weeks’ time.”

High was released on bail until her appearance at Newcastle Crown Court.

Assistant Chief Fire Officer, Alan Robson, from Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, said after the case: “It is always our preferred option to work closely with the business community to provide fire safety education and information.

“But where necessary we will not hesitate to exercise our legal powers to ensure the safety of the public.

“We would also like to reassure the public that we will act on any information they provide and take the appropriate action.

“If you would like to contact Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service please call 0191 444 1500.”