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HSE shows its hand in record fine for Alton Towers

The Health and Safety Executive proved today how seriously it takes injuries to the public, securing a £5m fine against the owners of Alton Towers for "catastrophic failure to assess risk".

In June last year, 16 people were hurt at the theme park when a train on its Smiler rollercoaster crashed into another car, described in court as similar to a 90mph car accident.

Five of the 16 suffered life-changing injuries, with two teenage girls needing leg amputations. During sentencing, Judge Michael Chambers QC said those injured were lucky not to be killed.

The accident happened when two trains stalled on different sections of the ride. Engineers wrongly assumed the computer wasn't working and overrode the stop. They then sent out another train carrying 16 passengers, which crashed into an empty carriage.

Following an investigation by the HSE, Merlin Entertainments, the owner of Alton Towers, was charged with breaching the Health and Safety Act. Because the company entered an early guilty plea, the judge said he had reduced the fine from the £7.5m it would have cost had it gone to court.

Merlin initially blamed the collision on human error, but prosecutors argued that it was the employer who was at fault, not individuals. The HSE concluded that the accident could have been avoided if the correct systems had been in place for engineers to check mistakes when the ride was running. Instead, a whole series of unchecked mistakes resulted in tragedy.

Commenting on the fine, the HSE said that when people visit theme parks, they should be able to enjoy themselves safely. Instead, the company had let customers down badly and had to be held to account in a criminal court for those failings.

This is probably the largest fine ever issued by the HSE. Some don't believe it went far enough, but, in my opinion it's a step in the right direction to correct the UK's lamentable past record of investigating and fining businesses for wrongdoing.

The HSE has proved how seriously it takes catastrophic injury at work and in public, particularly when it's the fault of an employer. In the past, it has not necessarily had the resources or the weight to come down heavily on profitable companies.

Changes to procedure now mean that the court can look at the turnover of a business in this type of criminal case and fit the penalty to the size of that business.

This type of uninsured fine – whereby a business can't pass on the cost to its insurer – comes out of company profit and hits the guilty where it hurts.  A penalty of the size now facing Alton Towers also means that compensation for those injured in a civil claim will likely be much more readily available.

Luckily, no-one died in the accident at Alton Towers. In one of my cases at the end of last year, a young man involved in an accident at a factory in Dagenham was not so lucky. He died when he was pulled into moving machinery involving a high-speed conveyer belt. During the criminal investigation, the company also pleaded guilty to contravening the Health and Safety Act. The company was fined £750,000, reduced from £1,000,000 for the early "guilty" plea.

Hopefully, those injured at Alton Towers will be grateful for the prosecution and the answers it provided and can now continue rebuilding their lives as best they can. The family of my client is still trying to come to terms with their loss of their son.

Lessons have likely been learnt in these and similar accidents, which should lead to better public safety. The HSE must continue to push for the highest penalties in criminal cases to encourage all employers to take their responsibilities seriously.

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