You never know when an accident might change your life forever.
Take the case of 6-year-old Wongel Estifanos, who was vacationing with her family in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in September 2021. The family made an excursion to the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, presumably for a fun day out at a favorite tourist attraction.
But the day turned tragic.
While riding the Haunted Mine Drop, Wongel fell 110 feet and later died. She was sitting on top of 2 seat belts that were already buckled, rather than wearing them buckled across her lap. An alarm system designed to prevent this exact type of tragedy did what it was supposed to do — it warned workers, but they had only been employed by Glenwood Caverns for 2 months and failed to prevent an accident.
Instead, when the alarm alerted workers, one of them reset the system and started the ride.
The Glenwood Caverns accident
The Haunted Mine Drop does exactly that... it “drops” passengers 100 feet into the ground, presumably while they are restrained in their seats.
On September 5th, Wongel was in a seat for the ride. She and 5 other passengers were about to experience their drop when the computer system alerted staff that a passenger wasn’t properly buckled.
But rather than stopping the ride and ensuring the safety of participants, the employee overrode the computer system and allowed the ride to continue. When the cart came back up from the drop, Wongel wasn’t in her seat. Her body was recovered from the underground shaft.
An attorney representing Wongel’s family expects to file a lawsuit against Glenwood Caverns for failure to properly train its employees. There were 2 operators staffing the ride at the time of Wongel’s death, and neither understood that the computer system was alerting them to a safety problem. The family alleges that they were improperly trained.
The family’s attorney says that it’s the park’s responsibility to ensure that each passenger is fully fastened into the ride. In 2019, there was a similar failure at the ride when a passenger accidentally sat on a belt. In that instance, though, a ride operator did buckle the passenger in before the drop and the passenger was not injured. However, the passenger said that they reported the problem to the operator, and that the operator was not aware until it was brought to their attention.
Amusement park accident lawsuits
Amusement parks are designed to be fun, but accidents can happen. Amusement park injury lawsuits can include slip and fall or stair accidents, drowning, food poisoning, or being thrown or dropped from a roller coaster or other pieces of equipment.
Operators must be careful, particularly when it comes to thrill rides that take passengers high in the air or upside down, or that move riders at high speeds, because there is such a high likelihood of injury if anything goes wrong.
Who is liable for an amusement park accident?
There are several possibilities for who could be liable for an amusement park ride accident. These include (but aren’t limited to):
- The park owner, operator, or parent company
- Security guards or safety patrol
- Safety inspectors
- Third-party contractors
- Ride manufacturer
- Ride operators
- Ride engineers
- Equipment and parts manufacturers
Can you sue an amusement park employee?
As with so many issues within the law, the answer depends on many different factors.
If the employee causes an accident, they can be liable. But the legal doctrine of respondeat superior holds that the employer is legally responsible for the acts of their employees if the acts are within the scope of their employment.
In order to hold the amusement park responsible, the plaintiff must show that:
- The plaintiff was injured because of the employee’s negligence, and
- The employee was acting within the scope of their employment when the accident happened.
In Wongel’s case, it seems as though both of these are true, particularly because the park would be responsible for failure to properly train or supervise an employee, though this will ultimately be up to the family’s attorney to prove. Wongel’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit for negligence related to improper training and other issues.
Defective product lawsuits
Some amusement park accidents are related to defects in the actual rides or equipment. This does not appear to be what happened to Wongel, but it does happen. For example, if the belt had broken or the clasp came loose and caused her fall, then this case would be completely different.
If that happens, the lawyer would look to the manufacturer, distributor, or seller of the defective ride or part to determine who’s liable.
If the accident is caused by a defect in the ride, it’s likely that the employees can also be held liable if they were in charge of routine maintenance or inspection and failed to notice the defect.
Assumption of risk in amusement parks
Another legal doctrine that commonly comes into play in these types of lawsuits is assumption of risk. This doctrine says that if a plaintiff is injured while choosing to engage in inherently risky behavior, the defendant is not liable for their injuries because the plaintiff reasonably should have anticipated being injured.
For example, if you participate in a speedway drag racing event and you’re injured because your vehicle flips, the course or venue likely does not bear liability if it wasn’t breaking any rules or regulations. Drag racing or speed driving is inherently dangerous, and you knew that before choosing to participate.
However, it’s reasonable for an amusement park guest to believe that the rides have been properly maintained, inspected, and would be safe when used in an intended manner.
Even if the plaintiff assumed the risk of an activity like riding a roller coaster, the park can be liable if it violated safety laws or regulations, failed to warn the passenger about the risks, increased the passenger’s risk above what it would be inherent to riding the coaster or attraction.
Let’s take a look at an example:
Ricky sues the park management, claiming that there should not be a pond near the roller coaster and that the fence was not high enough to prevent him from falling in. The courts found that the defendant was not liable because a reasonable person would have been able to avoid falling in the pond. Ricky chose to ride the coaster several times, therefore assuming the risk of dizziness and disorientation, which is what caused him to be injured.
What’s likely to happen in a lawsuit against Glenwood Caverns?
It’s too soon to know for sure, but it seems possible that Wongels’ family will be able to recover damages for her wrongful death, based on the facts reported in the weeks immediately following the accident and past cases.
Take, for example, the case against Kansas water park Schlitterbahn. Tragedy struck in 2016 when 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was decapitated while riding the “world’s tallest water slide,” the Verrückt (which means “insane” in German). A string of negligent acts related to the ride led to the court awarding Caleb’s family $20 million in damages.
Not every amusement park injury leads to a tragic death. Paula Noone of Arizona was riding the Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island, New York when she suffered serious and severe head and neck injuries. The 52-year-old sued Astroland Kiddie Park and Cyclone Coasters and recovered $1.5 million for the injuries that she said were caused by insufficient head and neck support. However, the court found Noone 60% liable for her injuries and she ultimately received $600,000 in damages.
If you’ve been injured in an amusement park accident, you can find a personal injury lawyer in the Enjuris law firm directory. Most personal injury attorneys offer a no-cost consultation where they review your claim and can advise you about whether or not you can file a lawsuit and how to proceed through the legal system.