Date of Verdict:

January 31.

Court and Case No.:

C.P. Allegheny, No. GD-10-012524.

Judge:

Robert J. Colville.

Type of Action:

Premises liability.

Injuries:

Hand, arm, neck and shoulder pain; cervical-spine damage; numbness; discectomy; aggravation of pre-existing condition; physical therapy; hardware implanted.

Plaintiffs Counsel:

Peter D. Friday, Friday & Cox, Pittsburgh.

Defense Counsel:

Sean P. Hannon, Dell, Moser, Lane & Loughney, Pittsburgh.

Plaintiffs Experts:

Donal Kirwan, vocational assessment, Pittsburgh; Dr. Daniel Bursick, neurosurgery, Pittsburgh.

Defense experts:

J. Bookwalter III, neurosurgery, Pittsburgh.

Comment:

An Allegheny County jury found that an amusement park’s negligence was not the factual cause of injuries a woman sustained while on one of the park’s rides.

On July 5, 2008, at about 9:40 p.m., plaintiff Sonya Smith, 43, a customer-service representative, rode an amusement ride called the "King Kahuna" at the Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin.

According to court documents, the ride features a bed of 40 seats suspended between two pendulum-like arms that rotate and lift the seating area up to a height of 40 feet, while the seats rotate as riders spin forward and backward. Riders are seated and held in place by over-the-shoulder harnesses.

Smith alleged that at the end of the ride’s sequence, instead of stopping at the end with the riders in normal seated position, the ride rolled through the end point and stopped so that the riders were suspended upside down. Smith claimed that she was pressed against the harness, and against other riders, for approximately 15 minutes, during which time she allegedly suffered injuries including cervical-spine damage, later undergoing cervical fusion.

Smith sued park owner Festival Fun Parks LLC for premises liability with a demand of $195,000.

The defense stipulated to negligence, and the case proceeded to trial as to causation- and damages-related issues.

After Smith exited the ride, she was examined by the park’s first-aid staff, and then left the premises. Smith claimed that she was unable to move her neck and also experienced numbness in her left (non-dominant) hand.

On July 7, 2008, Smith presented to the emergency room at Western Pennsylvania Hospital, where she was examined and released; two days later, while in Florida, Smith presented to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg with ongoing complaints. It was determined that Smith had suffered an aggravation of pre-existing cervical osteoarthritis. She was put on a course of physical therapy and medication, which reportedly proved unsuccessful.

On September 20, 2009, Smith underwent a cervical fusion and discectomy, which was followed by further therapy. Her suit sought to recover $21,200 in damages for past medical expenses. Smith was off work from July 5 to October 31, 2008; September 15 to November 8, 2009; and August 12 to November 8, 2010. Her suit also sought to recover $40,711 in damages for past lost wages and fringe benefits.

Smith’s treating neurosurgeon testified that Smith’s being suspended upside down for eight to 20 minutes aggravated her pre-existing cervical osteoarthritis, necessitating a cervical fusion at two levels, with titanium plate and screws. The physician said that Smith has permanent limited cervical range of motion, and has reported neck and left-shoulder discomfort post-surgery, but he placed no specific work limitations on her.

According to an expert in vocational assessment retained by Peter D. Friday, counsel for Smith, Smith’s future work-life expectancy is 13-and-a-half years (which assumes that she would work continuously and retire at age 61). The expert concluded that Smith sustained a potential future lost-earning capacity of up to $330,873.

Smith, who rated her ongoing neck and shoulder pain at an eight out of 10, sought unspecified amounts of damages for past and future pain and suffering.

During the three-day trial, the defense’s expert in neurosurgery, J. Bookwalter III, opined that Smith did not sustain any injury as a result of the July 2008 incident. Bookwalter concluded that Smith had pre-existing degenerative diseases that consisted of neck arthritis and cervical stenosis of her spinal cord, which, it was argued, contributed to chronic neck pain and other symptoms. Moreover, it was contended, Smith was going to require the surgery because of her pre-existing condition, the incident at the amusement park notwithstanding.

In addition, the defense cross-examined Smith about the fact that she had traveled to Florida for a vacation just days after the incident on the King Kahuna ride.

The jury deliberated for two-and-a-half hours before returning its verdict.

This report is based on court documents and information provided by plaintiffs and defense counsel.

— This report first appeared in VerdictSearch Pennsylvania, a publication of ALM •