Alton Towers indicates Smiler crash guilty plea and warned to expect 'very large fine'

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Alton Towers operator Merlin has indicated a guilty plea to a charge of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act over the Smiler rollercoaster crash in June last year which left five people seriously injured.

Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd had previously accepted responsibility for the crash after carrying out its own internal investigation following the incident, which resulted in two women having legs amputated after their carriage collided with a stationary carriage on the same track.

The guilty plea indication came as the case was being heard at North Staffordshire Justice Centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The scene at Alton Towers after an accident on the Smiler rollercoaster
The scene at Alton Towers after the accident on the Smiler rollercoaster (West Midlands Ambulance Service/PA)

District Judge Jack McGarva warned that the company "may be ordered to pay a very large fine".

Entering a plea on behalf of the operator, Merlin's counsel Simon Antrobus said: "I'm duly authorised on behalf of the company to enter a guilty plea to the charge.

"That will be subject to a basis of plea and will be for discussion and prior agreement with the prosecution in due course."

He added: "The company is accepting additional reasonable and practicable measures could have been taken to guard against the safety risk that arose on the day."

The scene at Alton Towers after an accident on the Smiler rollercoaster
Victims Leah Washington and Joe Pugh were among those in court for the proceedings (Phil Barnett/PA)

The prosecution has been brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which outlined its case against the park's bosses during the hearing.

Also present were the five most seriously injured and their families, sat in the public gallery: Vicky Balch and Leah Washington, who each lost a leg in the crash, as well as Joe Pugh, Daniel Thorpe and Chandaben Chauhan.

Bernard Thorogood, for the HSE, said its case was that the ride's operatives "overrode" the controlling computer system's actions to stop the ride, and that there had been an "absence of a proper settled system" for staff to work through problems on the ride as and when they occurred.

Vicky Balch arrives at North Staffordshire Justice Centre (Phil Barnett/PA)
Vicky Balch, who lost a leg in the crash, sat in the public gallery (Phil Barnett/PA)

He told the court: "The Smiler rollercoaster came into operation in 2013 in May and in our schedule ran from then until the time of the accident at the beginning of June 2015 in a way that was not as safe as it should have been.

"The mechanical and computer-related operation of the ride were found to be without any fault at all.

"It was a mechanically sound computer-operated ride which required human intervention at many points during operation.

"There was an absence of a proper settled system for staff to work to in certain situations and one of those was that when one of the up-to-five trains came to a halt around the system in one section there was not a good enough system for staff to interact with that problem and a proper procedure to sort it out.

The Smiler ride at Alton Towers Resort in Staffordshire
The ride reopened nine months after the accident (Joe Giddens/PA)

"The upshot was that on June 2 although the computer-controlled system was correctly showing one of the farthest parts of the ride, the Cobra Loop, there was a stationary train, staff didn't see it and there wasn't a system to see it.

"They overrode the computer block on the system and sent the train with some of those sitting here today around the ride. As a result those in the train were injured when their train came into collision with the stationary train.

"Those in the front row suffered the greatest physical injuries and were life-changing in many cases."

The Smiler ride at Alton Towers Resort in Staffordshire
Five people were left with serious or life-changing injuries after the rollercoaster accident (Joe Giddens/PA)

Thorogood said the serious nature of the injuries suffered and the potentially "very high level of fine" the case may attract, given Merlin was a "£250 million-a-year turnover" company, meant the case should be moved to a higher court for sentence.

District Judge McGarva agreed and, giving his decision, said: "This is a case which involved a very high culpability on the part of the defendant in my view and exposed the victims to a high likelihood of very serious harm.

"This is a case involving a large organisation which may be ordered to pay a very high fine.

"Clearly this falls into a category of requiring allocation to the crown court - and that's what I'll do."

The case was adjourned until a date to be fixed at Stafford Crown Court.