...establishing blame after an accident
Alton Towers operator Merlin is facing a £5million fine for the accident that caused serious harm to a train full of thrill-seekers on the Smiler rollercoaster.
The accident, which saw a carriage full of visitors crash into an empty carriage on the rollercoaster, happened in June last year and resulted in two teenage girls requiring leg amputations.
Explaining the recent court case that saw Merlin prosecuted for the accident, Claire Roantree – Head of Serious Personal Injury – explains the incident and talks of the long road to rehabilitation for sufferers of serious injuries.
Breaching health and safety
In April, Merlin – who runs multiple theme parks and other attractions across the UK – admitted to breaching the Health and Safety Act.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) brought charges against Merlin, saying that Alton Towers had let its customers down and claiming that there was sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution, adding that it would be in the public interest to do so.
Passing judgement and imposing the fine, Judge Michael Chambers QC described the crash as a “catastrophic failure”.
In a statement following sentencing, the CEO of Merlin Entertainments plc., Nick Varney, reiterated the fact that the company had accepted full responsibility for the accident and once again apologised to those affected by the crash of the £18million attraction.
Accident not caused by human error
In the aftermath of the accident Merlin had claimed that human error was to blame for the accident and there were not any technical, or mechanical, faults with the ride.
During the court hearing, further details of the events that resulted in the crash – which injured 16 riders – were revealed.
It was established that it was not human error alone that had caused the crash, but instead a number of systematic errors that placed blame not on any one individual, but on Alton Towers and its parent company Merlin.
The court heard that the accident was wholly avoidable, and that the crash took place because Merlin failed to put in place a system that allowed engineers to work safely on the ride while it was running.
This failure, it was claimed, caused a whole series of unchecked mistakes, meaning that it was not the push of a single button that caused the tragic crash.
During the court case, it was established that:
- After addressing operation issues, engineers failed to notice that an empty test carriage had stopped and was left midway round the 14-loop rollercoaster, they handed the ride back to operators to continue the running of the ride.
- Operators attempted to send out a carriage full of visitors.
- Recognising the stalled carriage, an automated system stopped a second carriage from entering the track.
- Unable to see the empty carriage, engineers assumed this was a computer mistake and overrode the mechanism, sending the full carriage hurtling into the stopped test carriage.
- Some of the engineers had not read or seen the ride’s operating instructions, which stated that the ride should not be operated in wind speeds of more than 34mph – wind speeds on the day of the crash were 45mph.
Since the accident a number of new safety measures have been put in place, not only at Alton Towers but across a number of Merlin’s theme parks.
The fine passed by Judge Michael Chambers QC is not connected to compensation to the victims of the crash, who are believed to be pursuing a civil claim, a settlement for which is yet to be reached.
“The details that emerged in court after this tragic crash highlighted that the accident was wholly avoidable.”
“In the aftermath of accidents such as these, access to a multi-disciplinary rehabilitation team who specialise in amputation and prosthetics is fundamentally important for recovery.”
“In cases that we deal with, rehabilitation is most effective when focussing on small goals and achievements to build confidence and encourage self-belief.”
“Specialist advice from Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists, Assistive Technicians, Prosthetists, and in many cases, Clinical Psychologists is an important part of the rehabilitation process.”
“It is a long, physical and emotional journey to ensure that the outcome of rehabilitation provides amputees with long term confidence and comfort.”
“Even for those less seriously injured in the crash, the psychological effect should not be understated and it is likely that many people involved may need psychological treatment to overcome their trauma.”
Written by Claire Roantree
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