Warwick Castle bridge death trial: Company fined £350,000 after guilty verdicts

THE COMPANY which runs Warwick Castle has been fined £350,000 after it was found guilty of failing to protect visitors in the trial over the death of a man who fell from a bridge more than four years ago.

Wednesday, 25th April 2012, 9:53 am

Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, which took charge of the castle in 1978, was found guilty at Warwick Crown Court today (Tuesday) of two charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The charges, brought by Warwick District Council, followed the death of 72-year-old George Frederick Townley from Berkswell on the afternoon of December 9 2007.

Mr Townley was leaving the castle via the Bear and Clarence bridge when he stumbled and fell over the low parapet wall, which was just over a foot high.

He fell about 14 feet into the dry moat below and died from his injuries.

Merlin, previously known as Tussauds Attractions Operations, had pleaded not guilty at a hearing in 2010.

During the eight-day trial the jury heard from health and safety officers from both the castle and the district council, safety experts Martin Barnard and Prof David Ball and also witnesses to the fatal accident.

Barry Berlin, prosecuting, had said at an earlier hearing that the issue in the case was whether there was a ‘material risk’ to people walking across the bridge.

In his summary to the jury at the court yesterday (Monday) Mr Berlin said: “It is crystal clear that there was a material risk here and at a result of that people were put at risk.

“On anyone’s account the bridge should have been risk assessed because it was a major artery to the castle.

“Warning signs could have been put up and a barrier could have been put up.

“That’s not just what we suggest, that is clear from the December 10 risk assessment that was carried out the day after the accident.

“Sadly this was too late.”

Mr Berlin added: “This is not a prosecution brought about by overzealous health and safety legislation.

“We don’t say Merlin is a bad company with a bad safety record we have taken a balanced view of this case but what we say is that Merlin simply overlooked a major entry and exit point used by millions of visitors.

“We say this accident could have happened at any time and if it had happened in 1978 the issue of statistics would not be relevant at all.”

Keith Morton QC, defending, had said it was accepted that the parapet wall was low but that a risk assessment “is an assessment of foresight, not hindsight” pointing out there had been about 20 million visitors who had crossed the bridge since the company had been involved with the castle.

In his summary, Mr Morton referred to evidence given by Prof Ball who had described the safety system at the site as “uncommonly sophisticated” and the risk posed by the bridge as “finite”.

Mr Morton said: “There was an insignificant risk of one in four million of any type of accident happening on the bridge and a one in 40 million risk of serious injury or death, you can’t get much more insignificant than that other than, I suppose, one in 80 million,

“It’s hard to see how there was a significant risk.”

Mr Morton said there had been regular inspections of the site, including by Warwick District Council officers, and the bridge had never been identified as a risk before the accident.

He used examples of other historical sites such as Kenilworth Castle to show there was not an expectation to guard from falls in the way Mr Barnard had suggested there should have been on the bridge.

Mr Morton added: “We say the extent of the drop may not have been apparent but it is a bridge and bridges go over things, there’s no nasty surprise about that.”

Merlin was found guilty of failing to take suitable and sufficient measures to prevent or protect visitors when entering or leaving the castle via the bridge from falling from a considerable height.

It was also found guilty of failing in its duty to provide preventative and protective measures.

In passing sentence, Judge Nigel Godsmark QC said: “This matter arose from the tragic death of George Townley but it is not, however, a case of corporate manslaughter.

“The death was tragic and unfortunate and he seems to have tripped unluckily.

“On my part I believe the risk of the bridge was not mainly to adult pedestrians but to children.

“Many people have crossed the bridge over the years and some were of the ilk of the health and safety experts from whom most of their evidence has been given in hindsight but Merlin had failed in its duty.

“I am of the opinion that Merlin do take their health and safety duties very seriously.

“There appears to be a good health and safety system at the castle and there are regular safety meetings involving all departments.

“The Bear and Clarence bridge constituted something of a blind spot, but that said it was a blind spot that had tragic consequences and had a risk assessment been carried out we would not have that.

“The defendant is an organisation of a substantial financial standing and while I accept the figures required to maintain Warwick Castle are substantial I also accept the sentence must have something of a sting to it.”

Merlin was also ordered to pay costs of £145,000 to the district council.

Castle staff put temporary barriers on both sides of the bridge on the day after the accident, which are still in place.

The company intends to put up permanent barriers, subject to planning permission.