Identifying Product Liability in Amusement and Water Park Accidents
Successful prosecution of an amusement park accident often involves a product liability component that is sometimes over looked. Many years ago, I raised the issue of bringing product liability causes of action into the area of recreational torts, particularly regarding amusement ride accidents.
Statistics indicate almost 2 billion people take amusement park rides nationally each year.Typically, ride manufacturers, owners, operators, and insurers confidentially resolve these cases keeping records and the amount of settlements confidential. Congress has limited the authority of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate fixed site amusements, and individual states have weak, or no amusement ride oversight. Subsequently, compliance and accountability within the amusement industry are greatly left unattended except for the efforts of a few plaintiff lawyers.
Safety Measures and Product Liability
A report issued in 2005 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission revealed the risk of accidents rose significantly during the period from 1997 to 2004. During this period the number of park visitors rose only 9.3% while, injuries on fixed site amusement rides rose 25%.2 Many times, injury is caused by negligence by the amusement ride’s owner or operator in the operation of the ride. A product liability cause of action may also exist.
Amusement rides are now more technically advanced to provide a greater thrill factor and often an amusement accident can be traced to a component failure, failure of a safety device, or design defect which can give rise to a product liability action.
Various types of water slides, water raft rides, and inflatable amusement attractions are common at amusement theme parks. Some thrill seekers suffer catastrophic and permanent injuries during the normal course of these rides and the design of the ride and inadequate warnings become primary issues.
Water slides can be compared to a roller coaster without restraints. Water slides and roller coasters rely on gravity and kinetic energy to carry riders down slopes and turns until reaching the bottom. On most amusement rides, the operator is in control of both the ride and rider safety, however, on water slides, the design of the attraction greatly impacts rider safety during the ride. A rider’s relative safety depends on the thoroughness and foresight of the ride’s design. Riders are often physically challenged by the physical forces of gravity, speed, and their ability to physically react. These rides require physical skills not called for in many non-kinetic rides. We assume that safety of such rides has been throughly considered and tested but in many cases, this is simply not true.
Water Park Injury Risks and Dangers
In recent years the water park industry has experienced rapid growth. During the late 1990‘s and early 2000s, water parks around the world shattered previous attendance and revenue records. As a result, park operators and water slide manufacturers scrambled to develop a new generation of body slides (slides that require the rider to sit directly on the surface of the slide without a mat or tube), and Inline tube slides (slides designed to be ridden by multiple riders seated in a tube). In a race to be first with a new ride, seeking large profits, manufacturers of water slides quickly went from arm wave ideas or crude sketches, to the production of wilder water slides generating greater speeds and forces without giving much thought to the potential dangers on varied body shapes, sizes, and weight.
When water slide manufactures began fabricating the new generation of water slides in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, safety standards and regulations were somewhat limited. The standards in the U.S. which are directly applicable to the design, manufacture and operation of amusement rides and devices are presented by ASTM F24 Committee.
In 1978, the amusement park industry coordinated with ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials.3 Following collaboration the amusement park industry created the F-24 Committee on Amusement Rides and Devices with the purpose to develop standard methods of test, performance specifications, definitions, maintenance, operations, and practices and guides for amusement rides and devices. This group works closely with The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions also known as IAAPA, bringing together industry representatives from around the world for discussions and seminars on amusement industry standardization.4
The ASTM standards promulgated by the F24 committee, are extremely important from a products liability perspective. These sixteen standards are consensus standards developed by industry professionals. Many states have incorporated all, or some of the standards into their amusement ride laws. The standards provide a detailed roadmap for designers, manufacturers, owners and operators from initial design through the complete life cycle of the ride devices. These standards must be followed by designers and manufacturers and impute responsibility to perform specific tasks and meet definitive criteria directed towards rider safety. Issues determining appropriate rider/user criteria such as age, height, and weight are spelled out. Additional requirements are set forth for structural integrity, the forces imposed on the rider/user, acceleration limits, detailed categories of restraint types and performance, testing, manufacturing quality assurance, and maintenance. There are literally hundreds of mandatory safety and operations requirements within the standards. A key requirement is that all calculations and analyses be documented in writing.
The amusement ride industry claims it has made great strides improving and insuring the highest level of safety.However, just knowing what to do is not enough. The actions of manufacturers and operators often do not conform to the standards they helped formulate and are directed to follow. Sadly, the industry is full of voids when it comes to compliance.
Lack of Safety Analysis with Foreign Construction
Many amusement rides are imported from overseas. Foreign manufacturers claim compliance with ASTM standards by stating that European, (or other) standards are equal or superior to the ASTM standards. No foreign manufacturer has ever presented an analysis comparing the requirements of the different standards in order to confirm this claim.
None of the states that have adopted ASTM standards require the submission of the written design and testing documents to substantiate compliance. We are currently litigating a number of amusement cases in which water slide manufacturers failed to fully comply with ASTM standards, yet, their products are in daily use in major theme parks across the country. There are serious accidents occurring on a regular basis. Some water slides have dangerous reputations not known to the general public. These rides have documented histories of serious injuries and fatality, yet profitability seems to triumph over rider safety.
In a recent water slide case involving an inflatable device used to travel down a water slide, a representative of the manufacturer was asked: “who designed the inflatable device”? The response was “the concept was laid out entirely in our group and actual drawings made by myself”. When the witness was questioned as to computations and specifications as to measurements and tolerances, his response simply was there were none! Further questioning revealed that the gentleman who designed the flotation device had minimal knowledge about inflation points, inflation pressures, or minimal specifications as to inflation, weight standards, and tolerances, yet alone basic physics and engineering.
The Rights of the Injured to Seek Compensation
When a rider is injured or killed on a water slide or other amusement park attraction, most lawyers typically sue the owner or operator of the park under a negligence theory, rather than litigate against the manufacturer which can be more costly and complex. If the plaintiff has sustained catastrophic injury or wrongful death, the plaintiff’s counsel should consider a product liability action against the manufacturer for a design defect and possibly failure to warn.
Intl. Assn. of Amusement Parks & Attractions, Amusement Ride Safety Regulations and Standards, http://tinyurl.com/7yl2n2e.
Mark S. Levenson, U.S. Consumer Prod. Safety Commn., Amusement Ride-Related Injuries and Deaths in the United States: 2005 Update, on page 2 (Sept. 7, 2005), www.cpsc.gov/library/amus2005.pdf.
Intl. Assn. of Amusement Parks & Attractions, IAAPA Safety,http://www.iaapa.org/pressroom/ASTMAmusementRideSafetyStandards.asp
Intl. Assn. of Amusement Parks & Attractions, IAAPA Safety, http://www.iaapa.org/pressroom/AmusementRideSafetyDesignandTechnology.asp.