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Kathy Fackler and her children were winding up a fun day at California’s Disneyland when they decided to go on one last ride, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster. Fackler was sitting between her two sons, with the youngest, David, 5, on the open side, when the car came to a stop. Thinking the ride was over, David started to get out — but then the roller coaster lurched forward. One of David’s feet became wedged in a one-inch-wide space between the car and the platform. His foot was torn in half and he lost all his toes. “For God’s sake, I was sitting right there with my arms around him and I couldn’t stop him in time,” says Fackler, of San Diego. “Horrible things can happen in the blink of an eye.” After David’s accident in March 1998, however, Fackler was confronted by what she alleged was “a wall of silence and self-protection” by Disney when she tried to find out more about the ride. Fackler — who since has become an advocate for amusement park safety — says she discovered that accidents at major amusement parks, while rare, are more common than most people realize. She discovered what plaintiffs’ lawyers assert they were already confronting: that the amusement park industry, intent on maintaining its clean-fun image, often swept injury reports under the rug. At the same time, these lawyers say, there has been an increase in lawsuits over park accidents, some that included deaths, as rides like roller coasters and water flumes got faster, higher, bumpier and scarier in order to attract more people to the 40 major American parks, like those run by Six Flags, Universal and Disney. In addition, body-punishing gravitational forces on some rides, lawyers assert, are now greater than those experienced by NASA astronauts at liftoff. Nonetheless, the big amusement parks are widely considered a safe form of family entertainment for the more than 315 million people who visit each year. The industry, which is regulated by a hodgepodge of state laws, asserts it is doing a good job of policing itself and no national oversight is needed. Federal regulation now only covers rides at traveling shows, such as carnivals. ROGER RABBIT NIGHTMARE “It’s difficult to bring suits if the parks aren’t reporting on accidents,” says Tom Girardi of Girardi & Keese in Los Angeles, who is representing several clients in cases against Disney, most involving people thrown from rides. Without all the details of incidents being made available, Disney “just claims the rides were misused by the occupants.” Girardi brought suit on behalf of Brandon Zucker of Los Angeles, who was thrown from the Roger Rabbit teacup ride at Disneyland a year ago at age 5. He suffered brain damage when he was run over by another car. The suit claims the lap-restraint bar on the car was too high for the child and he flew out the open cutout door when the car spun. The suit alleges negligence and product defect, and also seeks punitive damages for careless disregard for health and safety. According to Girardi, Disney’s own patent on the ride says the single-bar restraint system may not be adequate for children, and that there have been similar accidents on the same ride. The case is still pending. Zucker v. Walt Disney Co., No. BC24272 (Los Angeles Co., Calif., Super. Ct.). Girardi also alleges that the response of Disney emergency personnel was inadequate and that it took 25 minutes before local police and emergency medical technicians got to the scene. Many lawyers say such delays are not unusual in amusement park accidents because the parks often try to handle cases themselves to avoid official reports and negative media coverage. The Walt Disney Co. and other amusement park operators did not provide responses when asked for comment on accident-related questions. Disney’s general counsel also did not respond for comment. Larry Zucker, president of the International Amusement and Leisure Defense Association, an organization of lawyers who represent parks as well as attractions like go-cart venues and roller rinks, says amusement parks record accidents themselves. But they are not necessarily reported to state regulators unless they are major — which he defined as involving an overnight hospital stay or a broken bone or worse. Regulation of parks does vary, he says. Some states have virtually no regulation, but those generally have few amusement parks. Zucker says there are rules against under-reporting accidents, and that “it is not my experience” that under-reporting occurs. “What do lawyers and plaintiffs base their information on?” he asks. However, recent statistics from Disney, one of the biggest park operators, also raise questions about under-reporting. In papers filed last June in a Los Angeles lawsuit, Disney reported that 313 people said they had suffered back and neck injuries on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland over three years. Bynum v. Walt Disney, No. BC-232137 (Los Angeles Co. Super. Ct.). Disney, however, has reported just eight accidents so far this year on all its rides. “The general public has been deluded into thinking these rides are safe,” alleges Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney Barry Novack, who handled the Bynum case against Disney on behalf of a woman who claimed she suffered brain bleeding due to shaking on the Indiana Jones ride. “We’re learning these rides are not as safe as they would have us believe.” Novack says the suit has been settled. OVERSIGHT STRIPPED Rides at both the big fixed parks and traveling carnivals used to be regulated by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which had the power to investigate accidents, issue public warnings and call for fixes, says Alan Schoem, director of compliance for the agency. But in the 1980s, Congress stripped the agency of oversight over fixed parks like Disney World and Busch Gardens. According to a study done for the CPSC based on records from 100 hospitals, 10,580 people were treated in emergency rooms in 2000 for accidents on both fixed and mobile rides. Of those, 6,594 injuries occurred on fixed-site rides, up from 4,195 in 1993. There were 20.8 injuries per million park visitors last year, compared with 15.3 in 1993. Zucker says many of those injuries might not have been caused by rides, however, but could be simple slips or trips while visitors were entering or leaving rides. Terry Ward of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a trade group, pointed out that the CPSC injuries-per-million-visitors figure for 2000 was down 14 percent from 1999. She also says that her group is not seeing any increase in lawsuits, that parks routinely report accidents to state authorities, and that they must meet rigorous ride safety standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials. But others see a need for change. Spurred by the spate of amusement park deaths and accidents, including incidents in his home state, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., is pushing for legislation to resume CPSC regulation of fixed parks, according to his chief of staff, David Moulton. The bill would allow the compiling and sharing of accurate information on accidents all over the country, he says. “The only people with accident information now are in the industry,” he adds, “and they won’t share it.” Kenneth J. Allen is another attorney who questions park reporting standards. Allen, of Kenneth J. Allen and Associates in Valparaiso, Ind., sued the Six Flags amusement park in Gurnee, Ill., on behalf of 18 people, including children, who were trapped upside down in 1998 when the Demon roller coaster lost an axle and became stuck 60 feet in the air. He says park personnel tried to handle the problem themselves, referring to the emergency as an “equipment problem.” He says local police were not called until 22 minutes after the accident happened, and he terms the park’s response a “conspiracy of silence.” “Amusement parks want to keep these kinds of episodes confidential,” according to Allen, who says a jury awarded $450,000 to the plaintiffs. Proffer v. Six Flags Great America Inc., No. 98C-2621 (N.D. Ill.). Six Flags was called for comment but did not provide a spokesman. Bruce Gibson of Wooten, Honeywell and Kest in Orlando, Fla., who has brought suits against Disney World and Universal Studios in Florida on behalf of people who sustained whiplashlike injuries on water slides, says the parks fight hard to avoid giving up information on accidents and ride problems. He compares the situation to “the fox guarding the hen house.” While most people in the parks industry would agree that they want to reduce accidents and injuries, at the same time they are being forced to compete to build bigger, faster and scarier rides that can produce more injuries, Gibson says. ‘KIDS WANT TO BE SCARED’ As a result, terms like “brain bleed” and G forces are becoming common in amusement-park cases. “Kids want to be scared and the parks are meeting the demand,” Gibson says. Barry Novack, who has a Ph.D. in engineering, says he believed most cases of injury from high-speed rides haven’t been reported. He says he has about a dozen cases of what he called “non-impact dynamics” in which riders were dropped or shaken so badly that it caused brain injury. He likens the injuries to shaken-baby syndrome. But Zucker, the industry lawyer, denies there was any evidence of problems caused by aggressive, super-fast rides. “There is no proven pattern that G forces or sharp turns cause injuries — I don’t know of any cases,” he says. “A small percentage of the population has congenital brain defects” that could become problems, he went on, but that could happen under any number of circumstances, Zucker says. As for Fackler and her injured son, her story has an ending: She settled her suit with Disney. She went public with her story, and has become a well-known private advocate for amusement park safety, speaking in public and addressing congressional hearings. In addition, she offers information on her Web site, www.saferparks.org.

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