STATIONARY giant WH Smith must pay more than half a million pounds in fines and costs after a woman suffered serious injuries after falling through an open trap door in its Taunton store.

Patricia Rodway, 64, suffered life-changing leg injuries and was hospitalised for 17 days after falling nearly three metres into the basement of the outlet store on Fore Street on February 16, 2014.

WH Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of of failing to discharge health and safety duty to persons under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in May.

They were fined £337,500 and ordered to pay an agreed settlement of £135,492.66 towards the council’s costs of the investigation and subsequent prosecution at a sentencing hearing at Taunton Crown Court on Wednesday (October 31).

Prosecuting Jonathan Bates told the court Mrs Rodway had gone into the store to buy a birthday card for a friend and a member of staff at the top on duty on the day of the incident were not 'wholly attentive' and did not see Mrs Rodway browsing near the entrance to the trap door.

"Unless the area was appropriately cordoned off, there was a danger someone would approach unnoticed to that person or barge into them and fall down that hole," Mr Bates said.

"There’s some evidence that some of the several members of staff who were involved in the practice did make an effort to barrier it off, either using carousels, trolleys or items of stock.

"Nothing was done that day, and the majority of those who have given witness statements have not described a practice of using barriers at all."

The court heard on the day of the incident a member of staff in the basement did not see Mrs Rodway was at risk of falling through the open trap door as she was positioned at an angle.

"A member of staff suffered bruising but Mrs Rodway was not so fortunate," Mr Bates said.

"She could of course have been killed. As it was she suffered injuries which have been severe and on-going in their effects. She cut her head, needed stitches and most seriously cut her heel.

"The effects for her and her family because she previously looked after her husband has been emotionally devastating and physically on-going."

Mr Bates said an investigation by Taunton Deane Borough Council found the trap door was not being used safely, exposing both staff members and customers to danger.

The court heard there had also been a previous environmental health officer intervention in 2009 regarding the WH Smith store in Tenby, Wales, which had a similar basement giving rise to similar dangers.

Another WH Smith store at Southwold, Suffolk, had similarly inadequately controlled basement storage access issues.

The prosecution said the WH Smith 'could have done more' to ensure the store was safe and since the incident the trap door at the Fore Street store has not been used.

Defending James Ageros apologised to a tearful Mrs Rodway on behalf of the stationary giant and said he was 'deeply sorry' the incident happened.

He said the company takes health and safety 'seriously' but there was a lapse in their health and safety systems at the time of the incident.

"The mere fact of this incident has had a significant effect on the company," Mr Ageros said.

"You can see that it was escalated up to the board. The lessons have been learned."

When sentencing the company, Judge David Ticehurst said steps 'could and should have been taken' to ensure the accident did not happen.

"This is not a case of WHSmith putting profit before safety.

"As to the local management, the manager was made the subject of a disciplinary procedure within WHSmith because of this.

"Despite the efforts made by this large organisation, which employs 12,000 across the UK, generally it has systems in place designed to meet its health and safety obligations.

"The risk of members of the public falling through was something that was foreseeable. Any other shoppers browsing around the card racks could have been exposed to the risk of falling through the trapdoor."

Judge Ticehurst fined WH Smith £337,500 and ordered them to pay it within 28 days of the hearing.

Speaking after the hearing Taunton Deane portfolio holder, Councillor Patrick Berry, said: “A customer suffered serious injuries as a result of failings in safety procedures at the Taunton WH Smith store.

"One of our top priorities is the wellbeing of people in our borough, so I hope the size of this fine serves as a warning to all businesses, that the health and safety of all who use their premises – be they customers, employees or other visitors – is paramount.”

A spokesperson for WH Smith said: "WH Smith always puts the safety of customers and staff first.

"Despite measures being in place, a customer was sadly injured in our Taunton store in 2014.

"Following the incident, a throrough review was completed, changes were made to prevent this happening again, and we have apologised to the customer.

"The company takes health and safety extremely seriously as evidenced by its successful reduction in the number of reportable accidents consistently for each of the last eight years, across all areas of the business."