Warwick Castle operator fined £350,000 in moat-death trial
The death of a grandfather, who fell from a bridge at Warwick Castle and landed in a dry moat, has cost the heritage site’s operator nearly £500,000 in fines and costs.
Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, which runs the castle, was convicted yesterday (24 April) of failing to protect the health and safety of visitors, following a seven-day trial.
The company, which was found guilty by a jury at a Crown Court hearing at Warwickshire Justice Centre, in Leamington Spa, was fined £300,000 for a breach of s3(1) of the HSWA 1974 and £50,000 for a breach of the MHSWR 1999. It was also ordered to pay costs of £145,000. The company is considering what action to take following the outcome of the trial.
The court heard that George Townley was visiting the castle on 9 December 2007. He left the castle courtyard at about 4.30pm and proceeded to walk across the Bear and Clarence Bridge, which is one of only two routes that cross the dry moat into and out of the building.
The bridge, which is about 10ft 6in wide and 45ft long, has parapet walls that are only 15 inches in height. As he was crossing the bridge, Mr Townley stumbled and toppled over the side, falling about 14 feet into the dry moat below. He suffered fatal head injuries.
The bridge had been identified as a hazard in a public-entertainment licence condition in 1995, and again in 2003, as part of a fabric-survey risk assessment. But the court heard that Merlin failed to pass this information to relevant managers at Warwick Castle, including the health and safety officer. The company failed to act on these warnings and only undertook a site-specific risk assessment of the bridge on the day after the fatal incident.
Summing up, the judge remarked that the failure was “a blind spot in the management system”.
Following the trial, Rob Chapleo, an environmental health officer at Warwick District Council, which prosecuted Merlin, said the absence of a suitable risk assessment was key, as the drop from the bridge to the moat was not obvious to a casual observer. He pointed out that the firm had been made aware that there was a risk of falling from the bridge on two separate occasions before the incident.
He added: “Mr Townley’s accident was foreseeable and would not have occurred if Merlin had undertaken a ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessment, which, in the Council’s view, would have identified the need to provide barriers to the sides of the bridge. These would have prevented people falling into the moat.
“I hope that this successful prosecution will draw the attention of the operators of sites open to the public to the need to undertake proper risk assessments and implement the measures necessary to protect visitor safety.”
In a statement, Merlin said it would be reviewing the findings of the case before deciding what course of action to take. It said: “Our whole business culture is based on providing a safe and enjoyable day out for all our visitors, and we take that responsibility very seriously. We employ the highest possible standards, and have stringent and robust risk analysis and health and safety procedures in place across our business.”
The operator also highlighted that since 1978, more than 20 million people have visited the castle without a single reported accident, near miss, or complaint.
Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd is part of Merlin Entertainments Group (MEG), which describes itself as the number-one visitor-attraction operator in Europe and number two in the world, behind the Disney Corporation.