Theme park death exposed ‘systemic failures of safety’, court told

Richard Vernalls, PA
·4-min read

Drayton Manor theme park’s operators oversaw “systemic failures of safety” on a water rapids ride on which a schoolgirl drowned, a court has heard.

Evha Jannath was jolted from a vessel on the Splash Canyon ride at Drayton Manor in Staffordshire during an end-of-year school trip with friends from Jameah Girls Academy in Leicester on May 9 2017.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) brought a prosecution against the park for not properly ensuring the safety of its guests, with Drayton Manor already admitting breaching Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Drayton Manor Theme Park incident
Police at the scene on the day of the accident (David Charles/PA)

At the start of a two-day sentencing hearing at Stafford Crown Court on Wednesday, James Puzey, barrister for the HSE, told the judge the accident happened “in context of the systemic failures of safety on this ride”.

“The control measures they had were failing every day,” he added.

A High Court judge, who will pass sentence on Thursday, heard from the park’s own barrister Richard Matthews QC, who said it was “a corporate failing”.

Evha was ejected from the boat while standing up out of her seat, and although initially unhurt, later fell into 12ft of water after plunging from the conveyor belt which takes vessels to the ride exit.

The HSE’s lawyers said there was “inadequate” signage for those on the ride telling them to stay seated, “inadequate training” for staff, an element of under-staffing and a lack of emergency planning.

Mr Puzey said static ride CCTV only covered 50% of the course and was “not an effective means of monitoring the boats” or their passengers’ behaviour.

The court heard that although signs warned passengers to stay seated, people still got up – but Mr Puzey said the management of that risk was the ride operator’s responsibility.

A technical analysis found that people standing up on the ride was “relatively frequent” and that on “9% to 16%” of journeys, passenger “misbehaviour” was observed.

Re-watching CCTV of the ride on the day of the accident, experts recorded 70 occasions of people standing up in the boats.

Drayton Manor Theme Park incident
An air ambulance landing at the park on the day of the accident (David Charles/PA)

The court also heard that in separate incidents between 2011 and 2013, four people plunged from boats – or ended up being swept – into what was the deepest part of the ride’s course, known as the trough, which is where Evha ended up drowning.

Although none of those falling passengers were injured, the court heard details of one involving a 10-year-old boy in August 2013 which bore similarities to the fatal incident.

The boy was ejected from the ride at the same point as Evha and – like her – was not spotted by ride staff, instead being pulled to safety by a quick-witted member of the public who climbed a safety rail.

After the fatal incident, a review concluded it was “an essential requirement” that those overseeing the water ride made sure people stayed in seats, and could “detect and react” to passengers falling in.

“A passenger who is in the water and is in the trough is in immediate danger from a number of immediate hazards which pose risks of death or serious injury,” it said.

The review concluded: “It appears that the past experience of the defendant of having people go into water but thereafter being rescued were taken as assurance this was not a high-risk situation.

“Such an interpretation would be seriously flawed.”

The ride’s then most-current risk assessment from April 2014 identified the fact “guests regularly fall in due to them standing up”.

Mr Puzey said: “It is clear from the risk assessment that the defendant was aware that guests had actually fallen in and this wasn’t a theoretical risk.”

The then Splash Canyon ride manager had said falls from the ride on any part of the course happened “once or twice” a year, the judge heard.

Just 27 days before the fatal incident, the ride’s operating staff raised issues with the visibility of the CCTV system, people getting out of their seats and the warning signs, at an after-hours work meeting.

Assessment of the ride CCTV showed that at no point were Evha or the four other classmates in her boat all sitting in their seats at the same time.

However, although one of the ride operator’s roles was to tackle such “misbehaviour” by using an on-course loud speaker system, it was never once used on the day, the court heard.

Mr Puzey said Drayton Manor “accepts it failed to appreciate the seriousness of risk identified in this case – falling out and not being rescued”.

Although a fine of anything up to £2.5 million is set to be issued, the judge was told that Drayton Manor Parks Ltd, which operated the site at the time, is now in administration with its assets – including the park – under new ownership.

Splash Canyon has never reopened since Evha’s death.