Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, the company responsible for operating Alton Towers Resort, have today pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety Act in relation to The Smiler incident which occurred in June last year (2015).
During a hearing at North Staffordshire Justice Centre, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) described how, although the rollercoaster was mechanically safe, there were not systems in place to tell staff when there was a stationary train on the track. The court were told how a static train was shown on the computer, however a member of staff did not see this and overrode the computer system, sending the train carrying 16 passengers on its way. Addressing Merlin Attractions Operations after they had pleaded guilty, District Judge Jack McGarva told the company they would face a “very large fine”. He went on to say, “This is a very serious case… it is a case which involves high culpability on the part of the defendant.” Concluding the hearing, District Judge McGava referred sentencing for the case to a higher court with a sentencing hearing set for Stafford Crown Court on May 20th.
In a statement given outside the court after the hearing Bernard Thorogood, the prosecutor for the HSE welcomed the guilty plea and described how staff had no proper system to help deal with unexpected problems and said the ride “was not as safe as it should have been.” He went on to say:
“The Smiler rollercoaster came into operation in 2013 in May and in our schedule ran from then until the time of the accident at the beginning of June 2015 in a way that was not as safe as it should have been. The mechanical and computer-related operation of the ride were found to be without any fault at all.
It was a mechanically sound computer-operated ride which required human intervention at many points during operation.
There was an absence of a proper settled system for staff to work to in certain situations and one of those was that when one of the up-to-five trains came to a halt around the system in one section there was not a good enough system for staff to interact with that problem and a proper procedure to sort it out.
The upshot was that on June 2 although the computer-controlled system was correctly showing one of the farthest parts of the ride, the Cobra Loop, there was a stationary train, staff didn’t see it and there wasn’t a system to see it.
They overrode the computer block on the system and sent the train with some of those sitting here today around the ride.
As a result those in the train were injured when their train came into collision with the stationary train.
Those in the front row suffered the greatest physical injuries and were life-changing in many cases.”
The HSE have also released images of the carriage involved in the collision which show the true extent of impact of the incident, alongside a video of the removal of the trains and testing carried out as part of the investigation.
A statement was also made on behalf of some of the victims by Paul Paxton, head of personal injury at Stewarts Law. He described the guilty plea as ‘a milestone’ for his clients, but that it was ‘not seen as a victory’ and stated that they ‘were not motivated by retribution’. He went on to add “It is comforting for the families that a plea of guilty has been entered rather than the victims having to endure a drawn out trial. Regrettably, the physical recovery will be a lifelong process.”
After the conclusion of proceedings, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd released their own statement:
“Merlin Attractions Operations Limited today pleaded guilty to an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
From the outset, the company has accepted responsibility for what happened in June last year and it has co-operated fully with the Health & Safety Executive in its investigation.
We have sought to provide help and support to all those injured in the accident and will continue to do so.”
Alton Towers Resort re-opened The Smiler on 19th March, the first day of the main theme park season, after it had remained closed for the rest of the 2015 season following the events of June 2nd.
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