A GARDEN centre chain’s chief executive has reacted furiously after being told to pay £30,000 over injuries to two elderly customers.

The Garden Centre Group, formerly Wyevale, was sentenced at Oxford Crown Court over two incidents at its garden centre in Chilton, near Didcot.

Vale of White Horse District Council prosecuted the company but chief executive Nicholas Marshall said that its safety record was better than the local authority’s.

Derek Barlow, 78, suffered knee and shoulder injuries when he tripped over uneven pieces of concrete at the Chilton store on April 23, 2009.

At a trial in January the company was convicted of one charge of failing to discharge its duty under the Health & Safety at Work Act but was cleared of a more serious charge.

On December 14, 2008, Miriam Price fractured her kneecap after getting her foot caught in a missing section of a step. In this case, the Garden Centre Group admitted failing to discharge a duty under the Act and contravening health and safety regulations.

After Friday’s sentencing hearing, Mr Marshall said the garden centre welcomed more than 300,000 customers a year and had recorded just three accidents in a decade, compared with 23 accidents in the past year at the council’s Abingdon headquarters.

He said: “We’re very angry, because before the judge’s sentence the council, for what we can only think are political reasons, came out with a press statement saying “dangerous garden centre”, which is complete and utter rubbish.

“We’re doing our best, like everybody in life, and the staff at the centre were really upset by the comments from the local authority.

He added: “I’m very angry about it all. Taxpayers’ money was wasted and what have they all paid for? A few idiotic people at the council to have their day in court.”

Judge Anthony King fined the company £11,000 and ordered it to pay £20,000 costs and a £15 victims’ surcharge.

He said the incident involving Mrs Price was the most serious and added: “This company has been convicted of two separate matters.

“The first matter concerns what was undoubtedly a dangerous situation, which had been allowed to remain for a period of weeks prior to the unfortunate accident which cause a serious injury to a member of the public.

“I accept entirely that this is a well-run garden centre who have been, and continue to be, concerned with the safety of members of the public.”

A council spokesman said: “The council has the duty to investigate health and safety complaints. Following an investigation in line with Health & Safety Executive guidelines it was felt that there was enough evidence to warrant a prosecution, and the result of the court case fully endorses this decision.”