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Widener Univ. School of Law

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Sunday, March 5, 2006

Inherent Risks

An interesting fact pattern from one of my odder interests in tort law, amusement park safety:

What risks are inherent in riding roller coasters? According to Six Flags, getting hit by random items. A jury rejected that defense and awarded a total of $3.6 million to a woman injured on the Villain  wooden coaster at Six Flags Ohio (formerly, and now again, Geagua Lake):

Six Flags Inc. bought Geauga Lake Park in Aurora and built four rides in 2000, including a large wooden roller coaster called the Villain. Rocks, a few inches in size, covered the ground below the coaster, near a walkway to a picnic area.

According to testimony and court records, employees notified park officials four times in May and June 2000 that people were throwing rocks at riders. Rocks were found on the Villain's catwalk and tracks. A supervisor ordered the rocks replaced by mulch, but employees put mulch over the rocks and increased patrols.

* * *

Six Flags maintained the park was not negligent because Wang assumed risks inherent in riding a roller coaster. Six Flags attorney Patrick McCaffrey said park officials believed Wang was struck by a cell phone carried by someone on the ride. The object that caused her injury was never recovered.

Arguing that getting hit by a cell phone is an inherent risk seems like a tough argument to make, especially in the face of the documents that evidently strongly suggested that there was a problem with rocks there...and I'd really hate to have to make the argument that there's an inherent risk of getting hit by thrown rocks, especially when you had evidence in the record from which a jury could conclude that the park didn't do enough in response to the knowledge of patrons throwing rocks at the coaster.

The damages include $1.1 million in actual damages and $2.5 in punitives.  As the story notes, the plaintiff suffered fairly serious injuries (the coaster was going around 60 m.p.h. at the time she was hit by whatever it was) and underwent surgery to remove pieces of bone from her brain.

Note: The source story got the ownership chronology wrong. Premier Parks bought Geagua Lake, then bought Six Flags, before 2000.  The company then converted the park to a Six Flags park-branded park in 2000. Doesn't much matter, of course, but since it was pointed out to me, I figured I'd correct it.

If for whatever reason, you find amusement park safety interesting, I do more on it at MassTort.org.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/tortsprof/2006/03/inherent_risks.html

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