By Lezli Baskerville |
A patron of an amusement park was recently killed in a roller coaster accident. As is typically the case, the amusement park responded by offering the victim's family its “thoughts and prayers” and professing its commitment to finding answers.
As a practicing amusement park attorney whose law firm regularly investigates and litigates cases involving catastrophic injuries and wrongful deaths resulting from amusement park accidents, I am concerned that the widespread practice of in-house investigations free from independent review will continue ad infinitum unless federal and state agencies take on the greater responsibility of independently reviewing and investigating these accidents.
An amusement park safety expert told me that during his tenure as the safety director of a major national amusement park chain, an information lock-down was put into place after every accident, even minor ones. Lawyers and public relations people were brought in to sanitize facts before an investigation could take place. And the investigations were handled internally.
When people visit amusement parks, they expect fun-filled days; they do not expect danger. And, indeed, many amusement parks fuel expectations of carefree enjoyment with their ever-present advertisements on television, radio and billboards. Many of today's thrill rides are huge, complex machines capable of hurling riders at unprecedented speed with remarkable force. Their design, maintenance and operation often push the limits of physical tolerance for the patrons who ride them.
Due to a widely varying and patchwork collection of state laws regulating amusement safety, no consistency exists, and it is difficult for safety officials to identify which parks and rides pose problems. When patrons pay significant admission fees, they deserve to be protected. And, knowing that government agencies regulate what they eat, drive and fly, they naturally assume that federal agencies are regulating the rides to assure their safety.
The multibillion-dollar amusement park industry remains opposed to any federal oversight of permanent amusement rides and claims that safety is already adequately regulated by the states and parks themselves, despite numerous inconsistencies and exemptions. The industry is largely unregulated, and park operators – who may be more concerned about corporate profitability than consumer safety – don't do a very good job of regulating themselves.
In almost every amusement park accident case we have litigated, park officials have pointed to strong records of safety, and, instead of taking responsibility, have blamed the victim. I have yet to see one amusement park accident case where the park or operator said it was their fault.
If independent reviewers are not allowed to investigate deadly amusement park accidents, and state and federal agencies are not charged with the responsibility of overseeing these investigations, there is little hope for improved consumer safety in this arena. State and federal legislators must recognize that the current laissez-faire system of regulation has caused scores of preventable injuries and deaths.
Until the federal government closes the loopholes and properly addresses the current patchwork of regulations, lawyers who litigate on behalf of accident victims will continue to protect the rights of consumers. It is high time that legislators join in to help bring about change.
About Jeffrey M. Reiff Attorney at Reiff and Bily
Paul Noland President and CEO of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions
Walter Reiss Amusement Ride Safety Inspector