This follows the highly-publicised incident at Alton Towers theme park on 2 June 2015 in which five people were seriously injured on a rollercoaster, when their carriage collided with an empty stationary carriage on the same track.
Two female passengers on the “Smiler” ride suffered leg amputations and three others were also seriously injured.
Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd (Merlin Attractions), the company responsible for managing Alton Towers, has been charged with a breach of Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in that “it failed to conduct its undertaking, namely the operation of its Alton Towers Resort, in such a way as to ensure, so far as was reasonably practicable, that persons not in its employment who may have been affected thereby, were not exposed to risks to their health or safety, namely the risks associated with the operation of the Smiler roller coaster, whereby it is guilty of an offence contrary to Section 33(1)(a) of the Act”. Merlin Attractions will appear at North Staffordshire Justice Centre on 22 April 2016.
The HSE have stated that “This was a serious incident with life-changing consequences for five people. We have conducted a very thorough investigation and consider that there is sufficient evidence and that it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution.”
Merlin Attractions have stated that “We have cooperated fully with the HSE throughout their investigation while continuing to support those who were injured in the accident. The company completed its own investigation and published the results in November, accepting responsibility for what happened. We have also kept the HSE fully informed of the subsequent actions that we have taken to ensure that something like this cannot happen again”.
It has been suggested that human error was the cause of the incident after staff misunderstood a shutdown message and wrongly restarted the ride. This may have overridden the control system without the correct safety protocols being adhered to. There was not thought to have been any technical or mechanical issues with the ride itself.
Alton Towers was shut down for four days following the incident, resulting in a large fall in visitors. Inevitably, this had a negative impact on the finances of parent company Merlin Entertainments plc, but overall pre-tax profits are reported to have risen nominally by 0.3% to £250million, compared to £249million for the previous year, and like-for-like revenue was up 0.4% to £1.28billion. This overall result included a 12.4% decline in revenue from the theme park division (thought mainly to be as a result of the incident), but propped up by an 8% rise in revenue at its Legoland division. The theme park division of Merlin Entertainments reported turning over £285million to the end of 2015. Merlin owns other major attractions such as the London Eye and Madame Tussauds.
Under the new sentencing guidelines (see below) Merlin Attractions will be classed as a large organisation, ie one whose annual turnover is £50million or over. The suggested range of fine for a large organisation is £2.6million to £10million. The guidelines also state, somewhat ominously, that where turnover “very greatly exceeds the threshold for large organisations, it may be necessary to move outside the suggested range to achieve a proportionate sentence”. It remains to be seen how Merlin will respond to the charge, but if this case reaches the sentencing stage, one of the many questions for the court will be whether the turnover of Merlin Attractions will be classed as large or very large.