As it turns out, the heartbreaking story of the alligator attack on a child at Disney World was just the beginning. This summer has seen a streak of terrifying incidents at our nation’s amusement parks involving serious injury or death. Just yesterday afternoon, news broke of the fourth such major event in the last five days, when a small boy in Pennsylvania fell out of a moving roller coaster. Other recent incidents have included the death of one child at a water park in Kansas, a detached cable car in Ohio with two passengers on board, and three children falling from a Ferris wheel in Tennessee.
In the wake of these horrific accidents, it’s worth considering whether our amusement parks, some of the most time-honored, traditional destinations of family fun in our country, deserve closer scrutiny. Are they indeed safe? Should children be allowed on these kinds of rides? Who is responsible for regulating our parks, and what is being done to ensure our safety? The research into these questions may surprise you.
I was shocked to learn that a 2013 study by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that an average of 4,423 children per year are treated U.S. emergency rooms for injuries related to amusement park rides. During the peak summer months, the data revealed injuries occurring at a rate of 20 emergency room visits per day. Certainly, most of these injuries are not life-threatening, but the scale at which our young people are suffering injuries on attractions designed purely for fun is alarming.
This same study also pointed to deficiencies in how our parks are regulated. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is charged with overseeing temporary parks, such as county fairs, but they don’t even conduct inspections. Permanent facilities are subject to state and local agencies, whose standards can vary widely. Obviously, there appears to be an enormous lack of oversight into the safety of these parks, at least from an independent governmental regulatory perspective.
From a legal angle, each one of these cases is different, but I would be stunned if any of these cases ever saw the inside of a courtroom. I expect each will be settled quickly to minimize the negative publicity, especially given the firestorm of media coverage of these events. However, in the event that you had to take such a case to trial, you would have to prove that the responsible entities were negligent in some way and that this negligence led directly to the injury at hand. Proving a negligent design of a given ride could prove difficult and would involve dozens of experts in engineering and physics. Another strategy would be to attack the maintenance and testing of the ride in question- if it could be shown that proper safety checks or regular maintenance had not been performed in a reasonably prudent manner or with sensible frequency, the parks could be held liable on that basis.
If nothing else, we hope that the extensive news coverage of these tragedies and any subsequent legal action will serve as a wake-up call to ensure that these kinds of incidents don’t happen again.