The operating company of Alton Towers Resort, Merlin Attractions Operations Limited, have today been given a £5 million fine in relation to the incident on The Smiler which occurred on 2nd June 2016.
Following a two day hearing at Stafford Crown Court, Judge Michael Chambers QC described how there was a “catastrophic failure to assess risk” and that what happened on that day was a “needless and avoidable accident in which those who were injured were lucky not to be killed”. He described how Merlin Attractions Operations Limited “fell far short” of the safety standards that the public should expect of a theme park explaining how whilst the fun of the fair is an established tradition where visitors experience the illusion of danger this danger should only be an illusion.
Referring to the events on the day the judge stated how there was no written system of work for engineers to refer to for dealing with the problems they faced. The engineers should have seen the stalled carriage on the CCTV and, had they checked this in the control room, the court has been told they would have seen it. The crash was further exacerbated by the design of the ride which meant that it took between four and five hours to rescue those trapped as emergency services had to wait for impromptu scaffolding to be erected – the judge said “this could have been avoided if a proper plan was in place” and that good access to the injured for emergency services following the crash was woefully absent. He also went on to say that victims endured great pain and distress because of the delay in park staff recognising the enormity of what happened. Referring to the described lack of systems in place for the ride, Judge Chambers said that the shortcomings on the ride “exposed many thousands of mostly young people to harm going back to May 2013.”
The judge went on to recognise that Merlin have accepted that what happened was the result of system failure as opposed to human error as initially stated in their first statements after the incident. Judge Chambers recognised that Merlin were “entitled to credit” for pleading guilty and for co-operating fully with the Health and Safety Executive’s investigation. He accepted that since the events of that day Merlin have taken “full and extensive steps to remedy the problems” and that they do have a “good health and safety record overall”.
It was said that it was right that what happened had been the focus of much public interest as “they [Merlin] operate on a high duty of public care, Merlin fell far short of standards”. Speaking about the impact the crash has had on the victims Judge Chambers explained that their lives had been changed fundamentally, but that in the 15 months since the crash they had shown “great courage and fortitude”. Whilst the victims would be at the forefront of people’s minds, Judge Chambers said the fine bears nothing on the compensation they would receive in the civil courts. No financial penalty can put the clock back, and it should not be seen as putting a value on the injuries sustained that day.
Before announcing the sentence Judge Chambers refuted the defence’s argument of “medium culpability”, agreeing with the HSE’s claim of “high culpability” as a result of the lack of systems. He said once again that Merlin had fallen far short of required standards and was satisfied there was a high risk of harm. Referring to the level of turnover of the company he went on to say: “Having found high culpability and harm for a company of high turnover, the starting point is £2m up to £6m, but I will stick within this range.” The sentence was then confirmed as being a fine of £5 million plus costs of £69, 955.40 payable within 28 days. Due to Merlin Attractions Operations Limited’s early guilty plea the fine was a reduction from the £7.5 million it would have been had the case had to go to full trial.
Following the sentencing statements were made by a number of key figures involved. Neil Craig, head of operations for HSE in the Midlands said:
“People visiting theme parks should be able to enjoy themselves safely. On 2 June last year Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd failed to protect their customers, they badly let them down.
“This avoidable incident happened because Merlin failed to put in place systems to allow engineers to work safely on the ride while it was running. This made it all too easy for a whole series of unchecked mistakes, not just one push of a button, to result in tragic consequences.
“Since the incident Alton Towers have made improvements to the ride and their safety protocols, and the lessons learned have been shared industry wide.”
Speaking on behalf of eight of the victims, Paul Paxton from Stewarts Law stated:
“Symbolically and practically, today marks a closure of what has been a long and painful chapter for my clients, one of which they have been exposed to the horrors of that day.
“The court has imposed what we believe is a record fine for the industry, but of course money alone will never replace limbs nor heal the psychological scars.
“It’s worth remembering that this hearing is the first time that my clients have heard the full extent of the criticisms against Merlin.
“To be candid, they have been shocked and disappointed by the catalogue of errors.
“The list goes on and on: a catastrophic failure to assess risk; inadequate training; inadequate supervision; inadequate management; failure to communicate (and a) failure to put in place safe systems of work.”
Nick Varney, Chief Executive of Merlin Entertainments, emphasised that the company was determined to “never repeat” the devastating accident and, speaking outside Stafford Crown Court said:
“From the beginning the company has accepted full responsibility for the terrible accident at Alton Towers and has made sincere and heartfelt apologies to those who were injured. I repeat those sentiments here today as we did in court yesterday.
“In accepting responsibility and liability very early on we have tried to make the healing and compensation process as trouble free as possible for all of those involved. We have strived to fulfil our promise to support them in every way and I promise that this support will continue as long as they need it.
“We were always aware that we would end up here today facing a substantial penalty, as has been delivered by the court today. However, Alton Towers – and indeed the wider Merlin Group – are not emotionless corporate entities. They are made up of human beings who care passionately about what they do. In this context, the far greater punishment for all of us is knowing that on this occasion we let people down with devastating consequences. It is something we will never forget and it is something we are utterly determined will never be repeated.”
Today’s events conclude the proceedings brought by the Health and Safety Executive, although it is understood that a number of the victims still have civil cases which are handled separately to the HSE prosecution and will be conducted privately in the civil courts.
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