One of our niche practice areas involves amusement park accident injuries. We currently represent, for example, the family of an 11-year-old girl who fell needlessly to her death from a ferris wheel in New Jersey. So when one of these accidents happens, I can’t help but start thinking about the details.
Yesterday, a woman fell to her death off of The New Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags in Arlington, Texas. There will be - and should be - plenty of finger-pointing and blame to go around for how it happened. But I hope the tragedy doesn’t pass as just another “freak accident,” when there’s so much to learn from it to make consumers safer in the future.
The Texas Giant, built by the Dinn Corporation, with trains made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (which, despite the name, is actually a little bit outside of Philadelphia, in Hatfield, PA), originally opened in 1990 as an all-wooden roller coaster, then closed in 2009 for a complete overhaul, and re-opened in 2011. It’s one of the park’s flagship attractions, and it won The Golden Ticket Award for best new ride of 2011 by Amusement Today magazine.
Why is that important? Because it’s a reminder about the truth of amusement park safety: “new” doesn’t mean “safe.” Despite our natural tendency to believe that we wouldn’t get on an unsafe ride, and that we would only get on new, properly designed ride, the simple truth is that many of the newest rides - The New Texas Giant is only two years old! - have many of the same lurking dangers as the oldest rides. As Safer Parks notes, “Roller coasters are, by far, the most commonly cited ride in both accident and injury reports for patrons over the age of six,” despite the fact that, throughout the ride, the passenger is supposed to be firmly strapped in and unable to move.
We can already piece together from press reports what happened. As The Dallas Morning News reports:
Carmen Brown of Arlington was waiting in line as the victim was being secured in for the ride. She said she believed that the woman's son was on the ride with her.
Brown said the woman had expressed concern to a park employee that she was not secured correctly in her seat.
"He was basically nonchalant," Brown said. "He was, like, 'As long as you heard it click, you're fine.' Hers was the only one that went down once, and she didn't feel safe. But they let her still get on the ride."
She said the victim fell out of the ride as it made a sudden maneuver.
"The lady basically tumbled over," she said. "We heard her screaming. We were, like, 'Did she just fall?'"
As the witness said, "They didn't secure her right. One of the employees from the park - one of the ladies - she asked her to click her more than once, and they were like, 'As long you heard it click, you're OK.' Everybody else is like, 'Click, click, click.' "
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what happened: her seat restraint failed to hold her. We see this problem all the time; earlier this year I was contacted by an attorney representing a woman who, while riding on a rollercoaster, was smacked in the face by the restraint bar when it suddenly shot up. The smack in the face - which broke her nose - saved her life, because it kept the bar from going behind her, and she was able to push it back down and stay on the ride.
In the wrongful death lawsuit that will - and should - follow, there will be three main theories of liability against Six Flags, and against Philadelphia Toboggan Company.
First, operator error. It seems pretty clear that the employee’s claim “As long as you heard it click, you're fine” was tragically, fatally wrong. The locking mechanism on most of these rides does not function like a car seat belt, it functions by increasingly adding tension and pressure and further locking down. With each “click,” the bar is hold further in place, and odds are quite good that, on this ride, the first click offers barely any protection at all from the G-forces experienced by a typical rider.
Second, design error. The operator is partly to blame - but so is the company that designed the seat. Why design a roller coaster seat restraint that can fool an operator into believing it is fully locked when it isn’t? It should work like a car seat: either it’s locked or it isn’t. No in-between. An operator or a rider should be able to yank on the bar and know, for certain, it is locked and can withstand the forces on the ride.
Third, mechanical failure. It’s possible the seat was properly designed, but either not properly built or properly maintained, and so, while the restraint should have worked with one click, for some reason it didn’t.
Obviously, there’s a tension between the design error and mechanical failure claims - I’d have to have one of my engineers take a look at it to know.
Why is all of this important to everyone else? Because rides can, and should, be made safer. These restraints are only this way because the amusement park companies think they can get away with it, because they make the seats as cheaply as possible and then hire employees as cheaply as possible and train them as little as possible. The end result is right before our eyes.