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The tragic 2nd June 2015 crash on Alton Towers’ ‘Smiler’ ride, which occurred when a carriage of passengers on the record-breaking rollercoaster collided with a stationary, empty carriage on the track ahead, has been prominent in today’s news. The reason: the theme park’s parent company, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, was this fined £5 million for the health and safety failures which led to the crash. Sixteen passengers were injured, with two female passengers requiring leg amputation, as a result.

At the time, it transpired that the rollercoaster’s empty carriage had been sent on a ‘test run’ following problems with the ride, but that it had ground to a halt. This scenario caused safety sensors to be activated, but those sensors were overridden and the carriage of passengers embarked onto the blocked track.

Jennifer GilmourIn July 2015, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) initiated a criminal investigation against Merlin, with Merlin clear in their press release that the accident’s cause was “human error”. It was reported at this time that an engineer “overrode” the automatic safety sensors, which would otherwise have prevented the ride operator from being able to send the full carriage on its way, and that the ride operator then pushed the restart button. The implication was that these individuals were to blame but, thinking about blame, it is worth considering: what informed how those “humans” acted, and should they have been able to override safety precautions in the circumstances?

On 22nd April 2016, Merlin pled guilty in the HSE’s prosecution, admitting failing to conduct its business in a way which ensured visitors were not exposed to risks to their health and safety (in terms of the Health and Safety at Work Act etc, Act 1974). That left the sentence imposed on Merlin, in practice the level of fine, to be decided by Stafford Crown Court in a hearing across yesterday and today.

The HSE made their case first, arguing that winds of 46mph meant the empty carriage stalled, when the rollercoaster should not have been used at wind speeds above 34mph. They explained that computer systems correctly stopped the passenger carriage, but that engineers assumed this to be wrong when they could not see the stalled empty carriage, and so overrode the computer. They said the engineers had insufficient relevant training, lacked procedures to follow, had not been shown operating instructions for the ride, had had to disregard faulty computer signals in the past, had – it transpired today – felt “pressure” to get the ride running again, and were said to have been “doing their best” in those circumstances. The court heard that Merlin had turnover of £385 million in 2015, and its CEO was paid £733,000 in total that year.

Merlin’s representatives responded, apologising and saying it was wrong to have blamed human error for the crash as they initially had. Merlin admitted to a “serious failing”: it should not have relied on the assumption that engineers would be able to see a stuck carriage on the track, and should instead have had a formal procedure in place. Merlin ultimately accepted its systems failed, but sought to reduce the fine imposed by referring to safety measures such as CCTV which were in place, a good safety record and a prompt acceptance of responsibility.

Of course, any business operates through a network of “human” decisions. However, it is interesting to see the movement in this case away from Merlin’s initial “human error” stance. In the end, the judge concluded that Merlin’s failure, at company-level, was “catastrophic”, and the accident itself was “needless and avoidable.” The judge emphasised Merlin’s insufficiently safe system and inadequate risk assessment, as well as their lack of a proper rescue plan for passengers who became stuck on the ride. All of these are procedures which ought to have been secured at management-level with a view to preventing incident, and not left to engineers or operators at the point a problem arose. The judge credited Merlin for their guilty plea, co-operation with the investigation and overall health and safety record, but agreed with the HSE that the company was ‘highly’ culpable, and fined it £5 million.

If any good can come of this horrific incident, it is that the high profile media coverage of Merlin’s failings, together with the level of fine imposed on them, ought to go a long way to ensuring such an incident is avoided in future: both from the point of view of theme park visitors, who only wish to enjoy themselves, and from the point of view of their workers, who should be working within systems which secure safety whilst the ride is running.


Blog by Jennifer Gilmour, Accident Lawyer

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