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A Guide to Roller Coaster Accident Lawsuits

Amusement park lawsuits

Find out when an amusement park can be held liable for a roller coaster accident

Roller coasters injure thousands of people every year. Learn about roller coaster accidents and regulations, and find out whether you can file a lawsuit against an amusement park.
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The first American roller coaster moved along at a leisurely 5 miles per hour and faced outward so passengers could take in the surrounding landscape. Today, the Formula Rossa roller coaster in Abu Dhabi goes from 0 to 149 miles per hour in just 4.9 seconds.

Although roller coasters are relatively safe, the fact that they’re getting taller, faster, and more extreme means that when accidents do occur they’re often catastrophic.

Let’s take a closer look at roller coaster accidents and lawsuits.

Amusement park accident statistics

Every year, thousands of people in the United States are injured in amusement parks. Estimates of just how many people are injured vary wildly from 4,400 to 30,000 people.

“Right now it is hard to get a clear picture of what’s happening because there’s a patchwork system of regulation and enforcement,” said Tracy Mehan, a research manager at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio who conducted a 2013 study on child injuries at amusement parks. “We need a national injury reporting system for all mobile and fixed-site rides.”

Fatal accident statistics are kept periodically by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). According to CPSC, 52 people died in amusement park rides between 1990-2004, but more recent statistics are not available.

Amusement park accidents injure anywhere from 4,400 to 30,000 people every year in the United States. It’s estimated that roughly 36% of these injuries are sustained on roller coasters.
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Common causes of roller coaster accidents

People enjoy roller coasters for many of the same reasons they enjoy horror movies or bungee jumping. Roller coasters are a legal and generally safe way to experience the natural high associated with triggering your body’s fight-or-flight response.

Facing factsResearchers measured the heart rates of riders on the double-corkscrew roller coaster in Glasgow. Heartbeats per minute more than doubled from an average of 70 beforehand to 153 shortly after the ride had begun. Some older riders got uncomfortably close to what would be deemed medically unsafe for their age.

Unfortunately, roller coasters sometimes cross the line from providing the illusion of danger to exposing riders to actual danger.

CPSC conducted an in-depth investigation from 1990-2001 and found several leading causes of roller coaster injuries and fatalities. These include:

  • Mechanical failures. Mechanical failures include things like missing safety pins, broken welds or structural components, exposed electrical wires, broken drive chains, and malfunctioning lap bars.
  • Operator behaviors. Operator behaviors that cause roller coaster accidents include abruptly stopping the ride, improperly assembling or maintaining the ride, and ignoring safety procedures.
  • Passenger behaviors. Passenger behaviors that cause roller coaster accidents include intentionally rocking cars, standing up, defeating safety restraints, and sitting improperly.
  • Inherent dangers. Even when nothing goes wrong, certain roller coasters, such as those with sudden drops, can cause injuries like loss of consciousness, headaches, and dizziness.
Real Life Example:

The deadliest roller coaster accident in American history occurred in Omaha, Nebraska in 1930 when the Big Dipper roller coaster fell 35-feet, killing 4 people and injuring 20 others.

An investigation found that the accident was caused when a nut slipped loose from its bolt, permitting the brake shoe to settle on the track and derail the front car. The front car then dragged the following 3 cars with it as it plunged 35-feet.

Strangely, the deadliest roller coaster accident in London also involved a roller coaster named the Big Dipper. The London Big Dipper derailed after a car broke loose from its haulage rope and the emergency rollback brake failed, killing 5 passengers and injuring 13.

“As soon as we started shooting backward everything went into slow motion,” said a passenger. “I turned around and saw the brakeman desperately trying to put the brake on but it wasn’t working. Most of the carriages didn’t go around the bend, one detached and went off the side through a wooden hoarding. People were groaning and hanging over the edge. It was awful."

Regulation of roller coasters and amusement parks

CPSC provides some level of oversight and regulation of mobile amusement parks such as local fairs. However, it’s up to the individual states to decide who’s responsible for mobile amusement park inspections. What’s more, there’s no single body responsible for regulating fixed-site amusement parks (e.g., Disneyworld and Six Flags). In some states, fixed-site amusement parks aren’t regulated at all.

“Back in the 1980s, our authority to oversee fixed-site rides was taken away from us,” said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for CPSC. “We do deal with mobile rides, like those at local carnivals, but we are a small agency, and it’s tough to oversee every fair that sets up for a short period of time.”

Potential legal claims following a roller coaster accident

Most personal injury lawsuits involving roller coaster accidents are based on negligence or product liability claims. Let’s take a look at both.

Roller coaster accidents caused by negligence

If a roller coaster accident was caused by the carelessness of the amusement park or an amusement park employee, a negligence claim is appropriate.

A plaintiff in a roller coaster accident lawsuit based on negligence must establish that:

  1. The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid harming the employee,
  2. The defendant breached its duty, and
  3. The breach was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

If an employee is negligent, the amusement park can be sued under the theory of respondeat superior.

Common examples of negligence include:

  • Failing to post or enforce warning signs
  • Failing to train ride operators
  • Failing to maintain safe equipment
  • Failing to inspect the roller coaster
  • Failing to react to an emergency situation
Real Life Example:

James Thomas Hackemer died in 2011 after he was ejected from the Ride of Steel, a 208-foot-tall roller coaster at the Darien Lake Theme Park Resort near Buffalo, New York.

James, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran, had lost his legs and left hip to a roadside bomb in 2008. Nevertheless, James was strapped into the roller coaster with a fabric seat belt and T-shaped lap bar like all other riders. When the roller coaster dropped, James fell out of the car.

As he was falling, James hit the front of the car and then the track before landing about 135 feet below.

People without legs and people who lack sufficient body strength are barred from the Ride of Steel. Nevertheless, park employees failed to prevent James from boarding the roller coaster.

James’ family filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging that park employees were negligent when they allowed James on the Ride of Steel.

James’ family ultimately settled with the amusement park for an undisclosed amount.

“The object of the litigation was always to look out for two daughters who lost a father,” said Denis Bastible, the lawyer for James’ estate.

Roller coaster accidents caused by defective components

If a roller coaster accident is caused by a defective component, a product liability lawsuit might be appropriate. Generally speaking, 3 types of defects can give rise to a product liability lawsuit:

Manufacturing defect Design defect Failure to warn
A defectively manufactured product is one that—though properly designed—left the manufacturer in a condition other than intended. A product is defectively designed if it failed to perform as safely as a reasonable person would expect, even when used as intended. Manufacturers have a duty to warn users of the dangers that can be reasonably anticipated and that are inherent in their products.

 

Real Life Example:Anthony Theisen suffered a life-altering brain injury when he fell 17-feet from an indoor roller coaster at a Wisconsin Dells-area resort.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of Anthony alleged that the roller coaster had a defective lap bar that opened during the ride.

As part of a subsequent investigation, state investigators conducted a reenactment with dummies and sandbags and found that on the 12 lap bars in the ride, 4 of them failed.

The parties reached an undisclosed settlement and the roller coaster was permanently shut down.

Common defenses raised by amusement parks

Roller coaster accident lawsuits usually involve serious injuries and high damages. As a result, amusement parks typically fight the lawsuits tooth and nail.

Common amusement park defenses include:

  • Assumption of the risk. The assumption of the risk defense says that a plaintiff who voluntarily gets on a roller coaster is owed no duty of care with respect to the obvious risks associated with the activity. However, amusement parks are still liable for non-obvious risks.

    For example, if you suffer dizziness as a result of riding in a roller coaster that spins you in circles, you can’t sue anyone because getting dizzy is an inherent risk associated with riding a roller coaster that spins you in circles. On the other hand, if a lap bar malfunctions and you’re thrown from the roller coaster, you can sue because a lap bar coming loose is beyond the obvious risks associated with riding a roller coaster.
  • Shared fault. If the plaintiff is partially responsible for the accident, they may be barred from recovering any damages or their damages may be reduced according to their percentage of fault depending on the state’s shared fault rules. Common examples include a plaintiff who gets on a roller coaster despite not meeting the clearly-posted weight and height requirements, or a plaintiff who stands up while the roller coaster is in motion.
  • Waiver of liability. When purchasing a ticket to an amusement park, you may be asked to sign a waiver of liability. A waiver is simply an agreement saying that you release certain parties (usually the amusement park) from any liability related to injuries suffered. Every state treats waivers differently. In some states, waivers are unenforceable. In other states, waivers are upheld if they meet specific requirements.
  • Statute of limitations. Every state has something called a statute of limitations that limits the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. If you fail to file your lawsuit within this time period, you’re forever barred from recovering damages.

Roller coaster safety tips

Although some accidents are unavoidable, there are 5 steps you can take to lower your risk of being injured on a roller coaster:

  1. Always follow the posted height, weight, age, and health requirements
  2. Pay attention to and follow all loading instructions
  3. Make sure children keep their hands and feet inside the roller coaster at all times and NEVER lift your child above the safety bar
  4. Don’t let your child on the ride if you don’t think they can follow the rules
  5. Trust your instincts (if a ride seems unsafe, choose a different activity)

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