An investigation into Merlin Attractions Operations was commenced by Warwick District Council after an incident on 9 December 2007 when an elderly visitor to Warwick Castle, George Townley, fell over the wall of a parapet which was only 39 cm high, falling 4.3 metres into a dry moat. Mr Townley sustained head injuries in the fall and subsequently died in hospital. The investigation found that the castle’s operator, Merlin, had not completed a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for the bridge in question until the day after the accident. Despite the risk of a fall from the bridge having been identified as a hazard in a Public Entertainment Licence condition in 1995, and in a general “fabric survey risk assessment” conducted in 2003, this information had not been passed onto managers at Warwick Castle by Merlin.

Merlin were charged with breaches of Section 3(1) HSWA and Regulation 5 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Merlin denied the charges and highlighted that a visit by Warwick District Council five days before the accident and by way of an inspection in advance of a staged event, did not raise any issue with the bridge in question. In the absence of any previous incidents or near misses, Merlin argued that they had not considered the wall to be a potential hazard. However, the prosecution alleged that a proper risk assessment would have identified the need to provide permanent barriers. Previously barriers had been installed by Merlin on a temporary basis for specific events. The inspection by the Council had focused on specific areas rather than providing a comprehensive inspection of the site, which was the responsibility of Merlin alone.

Following a seven day trial, Merlin were found guilty of both charges. The Judge applied the Sentencing Guidelines for Fatal Accidents on the basis that the breaches were a significant cause of Mr Townley’s death and fined Merlin £300k for the Section 2(1) offence and £50k for the Regulation 5 offence. Merlin were also ordered to pay the Prosecution’s costs of £145k – although this was noted to be reduced from the total sum claimed to reflect the fact that the case had taken three years to reach Court.