Alton Towers owner pleads guilty to safety failings

The owner of Alton Towers, Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, has pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which states:

'It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.'

Five people sustained life-changing injuries in an accident at the theme park in June 2015. The incident occurred on the Smiler roller coaster, when a carriage of riders hit a stationary empty carriage. The impact pushed the front bumper of the carriage up against the seats trapping the riders and crushing the legs of those at the front.

Two young women each required a leg amputation after the crash and three other riders sustained serious injuries, including knee injuries, collapsed lungs and broken ribs. The riders remained trapped in the carriage for over 4 hours as rescuers worked to free them.

In all, 16 people were injured in the collision on the ride, which can reach speeds of up to 50mph and has 14 loops.

Health and Safety Executive prosecution

In a prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the court heard how there was an absence of a proper system for staff to work through problems on the ride as and when they occurred.

From the start of its operation in May 2013 until the time of the accident at the beginning of June 2015 the Smiler roller coaster was run in a way that was not as safe as it should have been.

Although the mechanical and computer- related operations were sound, the ride required human intervention at many points.

One of those faults occurred when one of the up to 5 carriages came to halt around the system in one section - however staff had no suitable procedure to deal with the problem. This meant that when the computer-controlled system showed there was a stationary carriage on the farthest part of the ride, staff were unable to see it. Overriding the computer's action to stop the ride, they sent the carriage round the ride until it collided with the stationary vehicle on the Cobra Loop.

Alton Towers plead guilty

Entering a plea of guilty, Merlin's counsel stated that the company accepted that additional reasonable and practicable measures could have been taken to guard against the safety risk that arose on the day.

The District Judge warned that Merlin faced very high culpability over the incident and may be ordered to pay a very large fine. The offence was so grave that he ordered the case to be moved to Stafford Crown Court for sentencing, on a date to be fixed.

In the interim. some of those injured are pursuing compensation claims against Merlin, although the cases are at a very early stage.

It is understood that they are in receipt of interim payments from Merlin to cover the costs of prosthetics and medical care. However the sum they eventually receive will be calculated according to assessments of their life long needs and their pain, suffering and loss of amenity.

Head of Operations for HSE in the Midlands said he welcomed the guilty plea entered by Merlin and that the company had acknowledged it failed in its legal duty to protect people on the Smiler roller coaster ride. The HSE said that they hoped this first milestone would help those affected to continue their recovery from the tragic incident.