When a rollercoaster full of thrill-seekers smashed into an empty car at Alton Towers last June, it was not the first serious accident at a theme park run by Merlin Entertainments.
Three years earlier, a grandfather suffered fatal head injuries after plunging into a moat at Warwick Castle.
Although the company was fined £350,000 for failing to take “suitable and sufficient measures” to prevent visitors from falling into the 900-year-old castle’s moat, the company, according to the judge in the Alton Towers case, missed a golden opportunity to make crucial changes to its health and safety systems.
“Those words should have been ringing in the ears of the defendant when it opened the Smiler rollercoaster only six months later.”
For Nick Varney, Merlin’s chief executive, it has been a particularly turbulent 16 months since the accident. Having initially been widely praised for fronting the initial response, he was criticised by the victims for not turning up in person for the court case in April when the company pleaded guilty to health and safety breaches.
After yesterday’s case, Mr Varney, who has led the Legoland and Madame Tussauds operator since 1999, said that by accepting responsibility very early on, he had “tried to make the healing and compensation process as trouble free as possible for all of those involved”.
He said that the Smiler accident was “something we will never forget and something we are utterly determined will never be repeated”.
During the two-day sentencing hearing at Stafford crown court, the judge described events leading to the crash as “an obvious shambles”, characterised by a lack of communication and double-checking and an absence of “a structured approach to ensuring the track was safe for passengers before authorising a reset and return to normal mode”.
According to an expert witness report by Stephen Flanagan, a former principal inspector at the Health & Safety Executive, the frequency of false alarms on Smiler meant that staff had become habituated to them and tended to assume that all alarms were false.
One engineer told Mr Flanagan that he had felt under pressure to get the ride back into service as quickly as possible and appeared to suggest that some staff bonuses were linked to achieving low levels of down time.
However, the prosecution did not refer to such claims and after the case Merlin said: “We totally reject any suggestion that we have ever operated in a way that puts remuneration or operational performance ahead of safety.”
Although he was critical of Merlin, the judge conceded that since the accident the company had taken full and extensive steps to remedy the shortfalls in its procedures and had shown an “exceptional level” of co-operation with the investigation.
Judge Chambers said that if the case had gone to trial, Merlin’s fine would have been £7.5 million, but he had cut it to £5 million because of its guilty plea. He gave short shrift to Merlin’s assertion that the accident was “the result of human error”.
“Human error was not the cause,” he said. “The defendant now accepts the prosecution case that the underlying fault was the absence of a structured and considered system, not that of individual engineers doing their best within a flawed system.”
Biggest health and safety fines
Transco, £15m In December 1999, a gas leak caused an explosion that killed a family of four in Lanarkshire. Transco was found guilty of failing to maintain the gas pipe Balfour Beatty, £7.5m In October 2000, a London-to-Leeds express train derailed near Hatfield station at 115mph, killing four passengers and injuring 102 Railtrack, £4m 31 people were killed and more than 220 injured in 1999 when a Thames Trains service crashed into a First Great Western train after passing a red light at Ladbroke Grove Total UK, £3m A fire at Buncefield oil storage terminal in Hertfordshire in December 2005 caused explosions that injured 43 people
Merlin boss fails to share his options
The chief executive of Merlin Entertainments left Stafford crown court yesterday with reporters’ questions about whether he was going to go without his share options ringing in his ears (Russell Jenkins writes).
Nick Varney had not been able to escape the steely forensic examination of Judge Michael Chambers QC, quite so easily and The Times was, at least in part, to blame for his discomfort.
The judge had asked the company’s barrister for details of turnover and directors’ remuneration, insisting that he required the information to decide on the level of the fine.
Later he appeared unhappy during a terse exchange with defence counsel, when Mr Varney’s share options, and those of other directors, were left out of figures offered to the bench.
The judge said he had asked for these figures because he had read in a report in “The Times of London” last April that Mr Varney and his fellow directors had been granted share options worth £4 million, with Mr Varney’s share running at £1.4 million. He adjourned proceedings while defence counsel took instruction.
Simon Antrobus, for the defence, returned later to inform the judge that Mr Varney’s salary, of £581,000 a year in 2014 and a bonus of £859,000, was a matter of public record. No director received a bonus in 2015, he added.
The share options reported in The Times were dependent on the chief executive achieving all his set targets over a three-year period. It was not guaranteed.
“The prospects seem quite rosy for them,” the judge suggested. In the face of Mr Antrobus’s protestations, the judge added: “It [the accident] doesn’t appear to have had much impact at all”
Judge Michael Chambers, QC, acknowledged that Merlin “does have a good health and safety record and procedures in place, particularly given its size”. However, he ruled that he was entitled to cite the company’s previous record on safety, in particular in the case of Warwick Castle, as an aggravating factor.
“Although the precise circumstances are different, it involved a failure to carry out a risk assessment,” the judge said. “On appeal against the sentence in December 2012, Mr Justice Sweeney said the appellant fell seriously short of the applicable standard, it failed over a period of many years to carry out the necessary mandatory risk assessment.