On Friday 22 April 2016, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd (“Merlin”), the owner of Alton Towers, pleaded guilty to breaching section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for the ‘Smiler incident’ that left five people seriously injured on 2 June 2015. The HSE prosecuted Merlin for not appropriately managing the risks that the theme park rides created following the collision of rollercoaster carriages. 

North Staffordshire Justice Centre heard that the accident was caused by human error when a member of staff was found to have overridden a computerised safety mechanism. 

Bernard Thorogood, representing the HSE, advised the court that there was no system for staff to follow when there was a carriage stopped on the rails. Staff could not see a stationary carriage on the rails, there was no system to see it and so they overrode a safety feature, causing the train carrying those injured, to collide with the stationary train. Following Merlin’s pleading on Friday, Neil Craig, head of HSE operations in the Midlands, stated that, “Merlin has acknowledged that it failed in its legal duty to protect people on the Smiler ride.” 

Sentencing is deferred to Stafford Crown Court on 20 May 2016 where Merlin faces the potential of a multi-million pound fine. On 1 February 2016, the new ‘Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences Definitive Guidelines’, came into force, supporting increased sentencing and fines in England and Wales. A copy of our Law-Now on the new Guidelines can be found here

Further, recent decisions such as R v Thames Water Utilities Limited [2015] EWCA Crim 960, have commented on the approach to be taken to “very large organisations” where turnover greatly exceeds the scale set out by the sentencing guidelines for large organisations, of £50 million+ and commented that it: “may well result in a fine equal to a substantial percentage, up, to 100%, of the company’s pre-tax net profit… even if this results in fines in excess of £100 million.” 

Merlin reported a turnover of £1.28 billion and a pre-tax profit of £250million in 2015.