It's fair season in New England.
Many towns have held fairs or carnivals, filled with games and rides. The fun will culminate for some with the Big E in West Springfield.
But it wasn't all fun and games at the Oyster Festival in Norwalk earlier this month. In fact, for any parent who's ever brought their kid to a fair, it was their worst nightmare.
A dozen children and one adult were taken to the hospital after one of the rides malfunctioned. Five other people were treated by paramedics at the scene. When police first arrived, they found children on the ground being tended to by frantic parents.
Although there have not been any lawsuits filed yet as a result of the ride accident, Connecticut trial lawyers said there are many potential causes of action that might be brought in its aftermath.
Bill Bloss, of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, said in general, a company that puts on the rides would be most susceptible to lawsuits, especially if a nonprofit or other organization that hosts the carnival has an indemnification clause in their contract.
But, he added, organizers of a fair or carnival could also be liable, especially if the company putting on the rides exhausts their insurance policy limits in short order.
"If there's only $1 million in [insurance] coverage that could get exhausted fairly quickly in a catastrophic accident" said Bloss. "The sponsors need to be very, very careful."
The Norwalk accident occurred on the rotating, swing-type ride called the "Zumur," which lifts riders up and away as it spins, authorities said. State police said a mechanical failure caused the ride to suddenly stop and those on board collided with each other.
Police initially thought some of the ride's occupants had fallen to the ground. But a preliminary investigation by state police indicated no riders were actually ejected from the ride or fell from it.
Bloss and other veteran plaintiffs' lawyers reached by the Law Tribune last week could not think of one lawsuit having occurred in Connecticut involving a person injured on a carnival ride at a town fair.
One thing they did know: The events at the Oyster Festival may lead to the first.
"People come in, set up and the people who go assume the rides are safe and that's not always the case. It's scary really," said Michael P. Foley, a personal injury lawyer in Cheshire.
Foley has sued the likes of Lake Compounce before when a ride has malfunctioned. But the town fair-type carnival rides that come and go all over the country is a different ballgame, potentially involving many different defendants.
Bloss said there's a reason why there haven't been any significant incidents on rides at fairs in Connecticut.
"In Connecticut there is a very robust inspection system by the state police. I think that's to Connecticut's credit compared to some states," said Bloss. "Still, I go to fairs. I go to the Guilford Fair, Durham Fair and I've raised my eyebrows at some of these rides, I have to say. But they've not created the level of problems one might expect."
The Oyster Festival was organized by the nonprofit Norwalk Seaport Association. They contracted with Stewart Amusement to put on the rides.
Monroe-based Stewart Amusement says it has provided rides and other attractions since 1983 at events in Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut and neighboring Westchester and Putnam counties in New York.
Its rides are inspected by its own staff every day, by state and local inspectors weekly and by engineers and insurance inspectors each year, the company's website said.
"The drive system on the ride locked up for some reason. We don't know why," said the owner, Richard Stewart. "This is the most serious accident we've had."
Stewart said he bought the ride new in 1983 from Chance Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Wichita, Kan., and never had a problem with it until now. The company stopped making the ride in the mid-1980s.
State troopers inspect all rides at every carnival or fair before they can open to the public, said Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman. Vance said troopers inspected the Zumur ride before the fair began.
Bloss said the organizers of these festivals need to do their due diligence in the planning stages.
"A small nonprofit could really put itself in a terrifying situation if they don't require the operator to have adequate insurance," said Bloss. "You may think they're a reputable company but get their OSHA records, get their insurance information. A nonprofit that just assumes that ride operators are safe and qualified might be putting its existence in jeopardy."
Bloss, in considering possible lawsuit scenarios, said a claim against the state, even though state police inspect rides ahead of time, is less likely, especially considering immunity and needing permission from the claims commissioner to sue.
Bloss said if the ride's problems were due to operator error, then a negligence claim would be filed against them. But if the problem was due to a defect in the ride, that could result in a products liability-type claim against the manufacturer.
"There's lots of possibilities," said Bloss. He noted that a potential plaintiff's lawyer would be paying close attention to the findings of the state police's investigation.
Angelo Ziotas, of Silver, Golub & Teitell in Stamford said the firm did receive one call already from someone involved in the accident in Norwalk.
"We did get one call but it appears that particular person was not seriously injured," said Ziotas. He said anyone with a more serious injury is likely tending to that at this point, rather than calling lawyers.
"Everyone, including the people running the festival, are fortunate there weren't any deaths or what appear to be any life threatening injuries," said Ziotas.
In addition to any negligence or defect type claims that could be made, if a child was hurt bad enough, he said a parent could make a claim for bystander emotional distress.
"If you have a parent observe an injury to a close loved one like that, there's the potential claim for bystander emotional distress," said Ziotas.
Ziotas acknowledged that such a bystander claim would not be warranted for a minor injury, only with a significant injury.
Though Connecticut has not seen a trend of lawsuits stemming from injuries on rides at fairs, other states have not been as fortunate.
In 2010, a $3.4 million settlement was reached stemming from an accident on a ride at the Calaveras County Fair in California in 2008.
A Yo-Yo chair ride malfunction caused several injuries serious enough to bring the lawsuit by the families of five young children, one of whom suffered a traumatic brain injury. Altogether 23 people were hurt on the ride.
Chance Rides, the successor business to Chance Manufacturing Co., the company which made the ride that malfunctioned in Norwalk, paid $500,000 as part of the settlement.
Earlier this year, a Philadelphia girl suffered a broken leg that required multiple surgeries after being injured on a ride called the "The Sizzler" at the Allentown Fair in Pennsylvania. She settled her lawsuit for $50,000.
In one of the more tragic fair ride accidents, in 1988 in Broward County, Fla. a 17-year-old girl plunged to her death after the ride's arms broke off. In 1995, her family settled a wrongful death suit with the seven defendants, which included the ride's operator, James E. Strates Shows, Inc. Terms of that settlement were kept confidential.
Experts say ride operators at fairs tend to settle cases rather than go to trial in an effort to avoid the negative publicity about an incident, which could potentially impact business.•