Theme park fined £1m for safety failings over girl’s death on water rapids ride

Richard Vernalls, PA
·5-min read

Drayton Manor theme park’s operators have been fined £1 million over safety failings which led to the “utterly tragic” death of an 11-year-old girl on a water rapids ride.

Evha Jannath was “propelled” 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), which brought a prosecution against the park for not properly ensuring the safety of guests, said the accident “should never have happened”, adding Drayton Manor’s operators “failed to take the action that could have prevented Evha’s death”.

Drayton Manor had admitted breaching Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Sentencing Drayton Manor Theme Parks Ltd at Stafford Crown Court on Thursday, Mr Justice Spencer said: “This was an utterly tragic waste of a young life.”

But the judge said there was “no prospect of the fine being paid” as the company operating the park at the time had since gone into administration, after years of losses brought to a head by the site’s shutdown during the pandemic.

The firm’s assets – including the park – were sold under a “pre-pack sale”, the court heard, and were under new ownership, with the attraction set to welcome visitors from April 12, according to its website.

Splash Canyon has never reopened since Evha’s death, and will not without the HSE’s agreement.

The judge said of the park’s operator: “There was a failure to make appropriate changes following prior incidents of passengers falling into the water of the trough. This posed a significant risk of drowning.

“The failure here was no-one identified the seriousness of the risk.”

The judge added safety breaches had gone on “over a long period of time”, adding: “The individual members of staff were not to blame, it was the system that was at fault.”

After sentencing, ex-Leicester East MP Keith Vaz, who has supported Evha’s family, said the past four years have been “torture” for them and “lessons need to be learned”.

He added: “No- one has lost their jobs as a result of this, the company will not pay this fine, no individual has said they are responsible, but there remains a hole in the heart of the family.”

Drayton Manor Theme Park incident
An air ambulance at the park on the day (@davecharlesF1/PA)

Evha was thrown from the raft while standing up, as it hit a wooden deflector panel on the water course’s final bend.

CCTV showed she was above water for a minute and half, before falling from a lift conveyor carrying vessels out of the rapids.

She drowned in about 12ft of water, also suffering significant blunt force injuries.

Evha was not spotted by ride staff and the alarm was only raised because a member of the public saw her fall in.

The judge said: “There was a well-recognised risk that passengers would ignore the signs telling them to remain seated and would stand or move about within the ride.”

The HSE found inadequate or faded signage telling passengers to stay seated, inadequate staff training, an element of under-staffing and a lack of emergency planning for the ride, which opened in 1993.

Drayton Manor Theme Park incident
The Splash Canyon ride (Jade Braham/PA)

A CCTV system was static and only covered half the course.

It was not always monitored by the ride’s operator, who the judge said had to split their time between watching the camera screen and helping board the passengers.

The judge said it was significant and surprising that boarding passengers were not verbally told by staff to stay “seated at all times”.

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.

On the day of the accident, experts found 70 occasions of people standing up in the boats.

The judge said: “The operator on duty that day says he had not had to use the Tannoy at all that day. If that is correct it means there were very many instances of people standing up that were not addressed as they should have been.”

The judge said a risk assessment had only identified the risk of drowning as “slight”.

In a safety meeting 27 days before the accident, ride staff raised issues with bosses over the signage, the CCTV and a new sprinkler system which sprayed water at passengers, encouraging them to stand.

The judge said: “Nothing had been done in the short time between this meeting and the fatal accident to address these matters. But there was a clear appreciation of several ongoing issues concerning safety on the Splash Canyon ride.”

There had been 14 incidents of people going into the water, with four “in the trough” of the main watercourse.

Of those, one involved a 10-year-old boy, whose fall was also missed by ride staff but he was rescued by a member of the public.

An expert report found the theme park operator had taken these “near-misses” – which had not resulted in any injuries – “as a form of assurance that this was not a high-risk situation”.

“Any such interpretation would have been seriously flawed,” the analysis said.

Experts concluded the risk of passengers falling from boats “was unacceptably high”.

The judge said no sentence could “reflect the tragedy of this case for Evha’s family”.

Evha, who turned 11 just four days before the accident, “had a bright future, she was doing well at school and had said she wanted to be a teacher herself”.

Turning to whether he should fine the company, given it was in administration, the judge said: “In my judgment it would be wholly inappropriate to do other than impose the fine which the offence merited.

“The public and Evha’s family must not be led to think that this serious offence, which resulted in the death of a child, can properly be met by only a nominal (financial) penalty.

“It is important that lessons are learned and the seriousness of the defendant company’s failing in this case is marked by an appropriate punishment.”