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.
“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.
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.
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:
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."
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.”
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:
If an employee is negligent, the amusement park can be sued under the theory of respondeat superior.
Common examples of negligence include:
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.
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.|
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:
Although some accidents are unavoidable, there are 5 steps you can take to lower your risk of being injured on a roller coaster: