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Merlin Attractions, the owner of Alton Towers theme park, has pleaded guilty to one count of breaching health and safety regulations following a rollercoaster crash last summer that left five people seriously injured.

Two cars on the Smiler rollercoaster at Alton Towers, Staffordshire, crashed mid-ride last June and left two young women requiring leg amputations. In February, the Health and Safety Executive decided there was enough evidence to prosecute, and on Friday, Merlin pleaded guilty to an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Sentencing has been deferred to Stafford Crown Court at a date to be determined.

“This will be the most important health and safety criminal case for many years,” said Peter Binning, partner at law firm Corker Binning. “It is extremely fortunate that nobody died but the court will undoubtedly impose a strong deterrent sentence. The breach of the company’s health and safety duty of care arose from a human error when an operator decided to override a safety system.”

Mr Binning added that Merlin faces a fine “measured in millions” and that the court has “unlimited sentencing power”.

“The court is bound by statute to ensure that the fine reflects the seriousness of the offence. There will be a very high fine and this case will be a landmark in securing higher standards of health and safety, which will make all companies and those that manage and work in them take notice of the severe penalties available to the courts.”

Paul Paxton, a partner at Stewarts Law, which is representing the seriously injured, said: “Given that such serious injuries could be sustained on a fun day out, it is hardly surprising that a criminal offence was committed. However, it is comforting for the families that a plea of guilty has been entered rather than the victims having to endure a drawn-out trial.

“Today is not seen as a victory; the families are not motivated by retribution, but inevitably this guilty plea will be a milestone along the way to psychological rehabilitation. Regrettably the physical recovery will be a life-long process.

“We are all grateful to the Health & Safety Executive for the thoroughness of their investigation and the way in which they have conducted themselves throughout the extensive investigation.”

In a statement, Merlin said: “Merlin Attractions Operations Limited today pleaded guilty to an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act. From the outset, the company has accepted responsibility for what happened in June last year and it has co-operated fully with the Health & Safety Executive in its investigation. We have sought to provide help and support to all those injured in the accident and will continue to do so.”

The HSE had earlier said the crash had “life changing” consequences for the victims, and that it was Merlin’s responsibility to manage risks associated with theme park rides.

Shares in Merlin, a FTSE 100 company, were trading down 1.1 per cent at 442p on Friday afternoon.

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