Between the Alton Towers Smiler Roller coaster incident, the injury to Harrison Ford on the Star Wars set, and the former actress Brenda McFarland who was killed on a Network Rail crossing, one thing is for sure, the reality of health & safety breaches within the workplace was firmly placed in the media limelight.
It is no wonder then that with the news of the £5million fine for Merlin Entertainments who run the Staffordshire park, Alton Towers, has been the topic for conversation for many over the last couple of days. The discussions have covered; was the fine high enough, too much, what does it mean for others etc.
The Company admitted breaching health and safety regulations in April 2016 having accepted that additional measures could have been taken to protect the safety of passengers. On 27 September 2016 Merlin were fined for failures leading to the disaster in which 16 people were injured and two teenagers needed amputations.
Judge Michael Chambers QC began his opening remarks saying there was a “catastrophic failure” and that the crash was a “needless and avoidable accident in which those who were injured were lucky not to be killed”.
He said it took too long for the emergency services to be called – 17 minutes, and it was over four hours before they were released after impromptu scaffolding was erected. “This could have been avoided if a proper plan was in place.”
The judge said that the passengers suffered “physical and psychological injuries” and the victims on the front row suffered injuries that were life changing.
The Judge said that Merlin Entertainments is “entitled to credit” for pleading guilty and cooperating with the investigation. He added that the Company does have a good health and safety record overall.
The court heard that Merlin Entertainments has a turnover of £500m.
With the new sentencing guidelines that came into force in February this year, health and safety offences are attracting much higher fines. According to the new sentencing guidelines, fines are divided out according to ‘harm category’ and ‘culpability’.
Merlin disputed the Health and Safety Executive’s claim that the company had “very high culpability”, urging the judge to view it as “medium to high”. The Judge however was satisfied “there was a high risk of harm” and “having found high “culpability and harm for a company of high turnover, the starting point is £2m up to £6m, but I will stick within this range.”
Carole Ferguson of Ferguson Legal commented, “This is the first major case to come up under the new sentencing guidelines. It is perhaps a lower fine than was initially predicted but it is the highest fine we have seen under the new guidelines. With Merlin’s turnover, that of several hundred million pounds, meant the judge will have looked closely at the guideline recommendation on proportionality and exceeding stipulated fine ranges”.
“Although he decided there was “high” culpability, he didn’t consider it necessary to exceed the £6million pounds to give a proportionate sentence. Bear in mind however that Merlin would have be entitled to a discount of up to a third; placing the potential initial fine at £7.5million.”
One thing is for sure given the facts of this case specifically how certain steps could have been taken to prevent such an incident; Companies should sit up, listen and properly consider whether their procedures and policies ensure the safety of people.
If you would like health & safety advise within the workplace please do not hesitate to contact the team at Ferguson Legal today. #besafe #getproactive #getlawsavvy