A major cinema chain has been fined £750,000 for safety breaches connected to the death of a film-goer who was crushed under a motorised reclining chair.
Vue Entertainment Ltd was slapped with the major fine at Birmingham Crown Court after Ateeq Rafiq, 24, died while trapped under a cinema chair in 2018.
The court heard how he had 118 stones of pressure forced on his neck by the footrest of his Gold Class seat, as staff battled for 15 minutes in a desperate bid to free him.
Cinema workers finally managed to remove the bolts from the chair and dragged his body out, but he suffered a heart attack triggered by a lack of oxygen to the brain.
The dad-of-one was rushed to hospital from the venue at Star City in Aston, Birmingham on March 9, 2018 – but died a week later from ‘catastrophic’ injuries.
Fining Vue Entertainment, which was also ordered to pay £130,000 in costs, Judge Heidi Kubik QC said Ateeq Rafiq died in ‘an accident that never should have happened’.
The father-of-one had gone with his wife to the cinema at 4.30pm on March 9 and bought tickets from a machine for seats in Gold Class, screen 17.
The couple, from Aston, picked C5 and C6 with Mr Rafiq sitting in C5.
Vue Entertainment Ltd has been fined £750,000 at Birmingham Crown Court for safety breaches after film-goer Ateeq Rafiq died after being trapped under a cinema chair in 2018
At the end of the film he realised he could not find either his keys or his phone and suspected they may have slipped down the side of his reclining seat.
He got up and went under the seat to check, but the footrest started to come down on him, crushing his head.
The seat occupied by Mr Rafiq – C5 – was found after the accident to have a blown fuse.
Speaking at sentencing today, Judge Heidi Kubik QC said: ‘Nothing I can say can ameliorate the loss suffered by his wife and family.
‘It is conceded that clearly a number of members of the public were exposed to the same risk of harm. The complete lack of a risk assessment was a significant cause of the actual harm that resulted.
‘There was no risk assessment at all and members of the public were allowed to operate the chairs unsupervised.
‘The seriousness of the harm risked was indeed a risk of death albeit there is plainly a low likelihood of that eventuating.
‘Clearly a number of members of the public were exposed to the serious risk of harm.
‘There were some 15 chairs in regular use within the cinema over the relevant period of time.
‘The risk was a significant cause of the harm.’
Ateeq Rafiq, 24, died after he was crushed by a VIP cinema seat similar to this one while trying to retrieve his mobile phone and car keys
Prosecutor Ben Mills added: ‘It has been calculated that the force the footrest was exerting was 2.5 meganewtons to 7.5 meganewtons. This is equivalent to between 250 kg and 754 kg of weight.
‘That set of mechanical circumstances plainly presented a serious crushing hazard.
‘As for Mrs Sardar’s victim statement, the nature of her anguish is such that she cannot put it into writing.’
Paul Rogers, defending, said: ‘I offer a fulsome apology to Mrs Sardar.
‘The company expresses deep regret that it finds itself here. It is terrible this tragic accident occurred.
‘This is an organisation that usually get its right but on this occasion it did not.
‘There have been 5 million visitors to screens and about 49 accidents. That indicates how responsible the company is in relation to risk.
‘They have really taken this very seriously.’
The court was told how the entertainment giant failed to conduct any risk assessments on the incorrectly installed seat which created a ‘fatal crush hazard’.
Prosecutor Ben Mills said: ‘On March 9, 2018 Ateeq Rafiq enjoyed watching a film with his wife who is in court.
‘When searching for his phone and keys after the film his head became trapped between the footrest and the seat.
‘The pressure was sufficient that he died from the injuries.
‘It was found parts of the footrest mechanism had been fitted incorrectly and they had never been tested if they had been the accident could’ve been avoided.’
An inquest previously heard that his wife Ayesha Sardar tried to hold it up when she realised what was happening.
Mrs Sardar alerted staff who tried for approximately 10 to 15 minutes before releasing Mr Rafiq, but they could not get the buttons which operated the footrest to work.
Paramedics arrived at 7.55pm and Mr Rafiq was taken to Heartlands Hospital where he died on March 16 after suffering a hypoxic brain injury.
In April 2021, Vue Entertainment Ltd admitted two charges at Birmingham Crown Court under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
The company pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that persons were not exposed to risk to their health and safety and failing to make a suitable and safe risk assessment between January 1, 2007 and March 9, 2018 in relation to the use of powered cinema seating.
Writing on social media shortly after his death, Mr Rafiq’s wife Ayesha Sardar described her last moments with her husband, who she called her ‘best friend’.
‘When I held your hand for the last time I felt you squeeze it with a different strength, a strength which kind of indicated you knew you were leaving me and Aairah forever,’ Ayesha wrote.
‘I was calling your name and I was holding you as much as I could and I told you I’m there with you like I promised you from day one.
‘I was the last one to ever see you with your eyes open, the last one to hear your voice and the last one to see you smile and I’m so grateful to Allah SWT every day for giving me that chance as your wife.
‘I remember you telling me you love me for the last time and I told you I love you back and our life together ended there for a while.’
Vue acquired the site from Warner Brothers in 2003 and the seats were found to be safe at the time.
Mr Mills, prosecuting, added: ‘In 2003 all the footrests were operated by a push only actuator. It simple pushes the footrest forward until it is horizontal.
‘With push only, once the costumer gets off the seat, the actuator simply reacts and the footrest falls back.
‘Under that system it is always possible to manipulate the footrest by hand, so it represents no trap hazard at all
‘Unsurprisingly from time to time the push only actuator need replacing and they are easy to replace when the need arose.
‘In 2007 the seat manufacturer changed the design of the Kimberly footrest mechanism, that actuator was designed to be attached to a much smaller bar that when pushed forward pulled backwards.
‘It was not designed to be attached directly to the footrest that is the problem in this case.
‘They were designed to be accompanied by an upgraded kit which had the parts required to guarantee safe installation.
‘The prosecution expert says that if installed correctly it posed no trap risk.
‘Although there is evidence other cinemas received the upgraded conversion kit Vue said they never received them.
‘The crown cannot dispute the assertion to the requisite level that Vue did not receive those kits.
‘On that basis they should be sentenced as if they did not receive those kits.
‘Vue have said they did receive some of the push pull actuators and they accept they fitted some of those to some seats wrongly by attaching them directly to the footrest that created the risk of entrapment.
‘By fitting the push pull actuator incorrectly Vue created a fatal crush hazard.
‘The likelihood of a member of the public having access to a dangerous seat was high.
‘Vue accept they should’ve properly undertaken risk assessment on the seats at the time of installation or before they were installed
‘Such an assessment would’ve revealed a fault in the actuator, it would have prevented that seat being installed and creating as it did a fatal entrapment.’