masstort.org

Amusement safety and such

I’m trying to clean up the blog a bit; I’m anticipating some traffic from appearing on This American Life (on the weekend of August 13! listen!) talking about amusement ride safety.  So, a little note about site stuff:

  • This is actually the third platform I’ve used.  (Took me a while to realize that WordPress was the one that was going to stick around.)  I moved everything from the very first platform (since deleted) to the second platform.  There’s a lot there that I haven’t moved here and may never move here.
  • One thing I have moved over is the downloads page.  There, you’ll find many downloads related to accidents, litigation, etc.  Most relevant to the This American Life appearance are the documents related to the death of Stanley Mordarsky at Six Flags New England.  The links on that page mostly go to pages on the old site.

On my way out so I can’t post much, but the AP story gives a good summary.

A Buffalo-area law firm is evidently investigating the facts surrounding the death of Sgt. James Hackemer, but won’t say on whose behalf it is working — and one member his family says it isn’t representing them.  Previously, the family had said it didn’t blame anyone for his death, but of course that doesn’t preclude suit later.

According to the Sheriff, Sgt. Hackemer was given a brochure for disabled riders that specified the requirements to ride on the park’s attractions, including Ride of Steel’s requirement that passengers have two legs.

In a prior post, I noted that news coverage of the death of Sgt. James Hackemer suggested that Darien Lake didn’t require riders of Ride of Steel to have two legs.  I received a link to this photograph that appears to indicate otherwise — though, clearly, that rule was not followed here.

Update: The local sheriff’s office has confirmed that the park’s own rules were not followed in permitting Sgt. Hackemer to ride, but also concluded that no criminal charges will be filed.

An eleven-year-old girl, Abiah Jones, tragically fell to her death from Morey’s Pier’s Ferris Wheel last month.  Last week, her parents filed suit.  The complaint alleges both a design defect (as with many Ferris Wheels, the ride doesn’t have seat belts or other individual restraints) and negligence in operation (contending that riders should not be permitted to ride alone).

The latter allegation echoes the state inspector’s report, which concluded that Jones likely would not have fallen if another rider had been with her.  (The inspectors, accordingly, recommended that single riders not be permitted on that or similar rides, a rule already enforced on many Ferris Wheels I’ve been on nationwide, including the one at Waldameer Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, which I visited June 21.

As with many suits — especially those involving children — this one lands right at the lines between rider responsibility and park and designer decisions.

Rep. Ed Markey (D. Mass.) has periodically sought to close what he calls the “rollercoaster loophole” — the statutory provision that excludes fixed-site amusement parks from federal oversight by the CPSC.  In response to the tragic death of Sgt. James Hackemer at Darien Lake, he has renewed that effort.

I’m ambivalent about federal oversight.  The CPSC already has jurisdiction over traveling carnival rides, and it doesn’t seem to have done harm in that setting — but neither have I seen a lot of positives.  It is exceedingly unlikely that the agency would seek to inspect or pre-approve rides; it doesn’t have that kind of resources (nor does Markey’s bill provide them).  It would be more likely to follow the post-incident investigatory approach, which seems to me to be not an obviously bad idea.  Many states have excellent regulatory schemes; some have weaker schemes; some have essentially none.  And there is no consistent means for communicating problems among states.  That all counsels in favor of the agency.

On the other hand, amusement rides aren’t like toasters or most of the products the CPSC oversees — they aren’t mass-produced, they aren’t really consumer products, and so on.  It’s not a perfect fit, and federal involvement could complicate things unnecessarily (though so far as I know, that hasn’t happened on the traveling ride side).

As an update on the Darien Lake tragedy, the article indicates that other rides at Darien Lake do require passengers to have at least one leg, while asserting that Ride of Steel did not.  If that’s true, that seems problematic — the restraints on Intamin hypercoasters are primarily lap bars, and without at least one complete leg, it is tricky to see how the restraint could work.  [Update: A photograph — the source of which I don’t know — appears to indicate that the park’s in-park signs did require two legs for riding Ride of Steel.]

No details yet, but the local press is reporting that a man “came out of” the Ride of Steel (nee Superman: Ride of Steel) coaster at Darien Lake.  That ride is, of course, essentially the same design (though mirrored) as Six Flags New England’s Bizarro (nee Superman: Ride of Steel), out of which a man fell to his death about seven years ago.  The latter’s restraints were changed a couple of times after the death; I don’t know whether Darien Lake’s were.

Update: The victim has been identified as Sgt. James Hackemer, an Iraq War vet who lost both of his legs in an explosion.  One can speculate about the efficacy of the restraint system when a rider doesn’t have any legs.  I think that at least one ride at Six Flags New England expressly requires riders to have at least one leg; I don’t remember if that’s Bizarro.

(Also edited to note that the design is not precisely identical.)

In an interesting intermediate appellate court decision out of California [PDF], a court ruled that primary assumption of risk doesn’t apply in the context of amusement park rides and that factual issues predominated, such that summary judgment was inappropriate.  The case arose out of a doctor’s visit to Cedar Fair’s Great America ride and the park’s alleged failure to reduce the risks of head-on collisions on their bumper cars.  (The doctor broke her wrist.)  The decision is worth reading for at least three reasons:

  1. It includes a particularly entertaining footnote addressing Cardozo’s famous Murphy case — worth a read for that alone.
  2. More centrally, it has a fascinating analysis in which the majority bases its conclusion that primary assumption of risk doesn’t apply on the fact that amusement parks specifically market the illusion of risk, citing California cases in which amusement rides were deemed common carriers.  The court properly notes that the inherent-risk flavor of assumption of risk is essentially a no-duty finding.
  3. The court cites Stan Lee.  That’s awesome.

 

It’s an interesting and well-written opinion, probably correct given the overall trend away from use of assumption of risk and no-duty arguments.

Addendum: Screamscape fears massive implications of the decision.  While I suppose it’s possible that it’ll cause parks to shut down rides, I think it’s very unlikely to do so.  Remember the context: the court concluded only that the park had a duty to act reasonably in connection with potential injuries like this — it didn’t conclude that the park breached that duty or acted negligently.  Reversing summary judgment is very different than concluding that the park breached the standard of care, and I would guess that a jury wouldn’t find that the park acted negligently in how it ran the ride.

As the court notes, a significant majority of parks (including some of Cedar Fair’s before this accident, and Great America after) have already made bumper cars one-way with an island to reduce the risk of head-on collisions.  I happen to prefer free-for-alls (and in fact have been willing to accept the risk of head-on collisions), but don’t particularly see the shift as being a terrible awful no-good very bad thing.  It’s just a tweak.

Just as declaring roller coasters common carriers hasn’t remotely shut down coasters in California (as predicted by CAPPA at the time), this, too, won’t have any major — or probably even very many minor — implications, in my view.

Another update: Declarations & Exclusions thinks the case is wrongly decided.  I don’t much disagree — I’d be okay with a broader assumption of risk, broad enough to capture this — but think the case was rightly decided under California’s overall trend (one generally reflected nationwide) towards narrowing no-duty rules.

Last Friday, an eleven-year-old girl, Abiah Jones, fell to her death from Morey’s Piers’ Ferris Wheel (the “Great Wheel”); the park reopened the next day, though the wheel has stayed closed.  Initial investigations have revealed no mechanical failures.  The ride doesn’t have restraints as such, similar to the vast majority of Ferris wheels.  Ms. Jones was evidently riding by herself (and was tall enough to do so according to the ride rules.)