Unique Exposures for Amusement Park Rides
Nothing quite matches the exhilarating thrills of amusement rides for young and old alike. There are more than 400 amusement parks and attractions in the U.S., and attendance at the top 10 U.S. theme parks was just under 113 million in 2016.
For the average amusement park junkie it is well worth standing in line for an hour or longer for a ride on the newest, tallest, most dangerous and exciting ride in the park. However, what happens when the ride keeps you hanging in mid-air requiring ladders to retrieve you, or worse still, when the ride malfunctions and causes injury or even death, such as when the Fire Ball ride malfunctioned at the Ohio State Fair last July. A statement released on August 2, 2017 by the manufacturer of the Fire Ball, KMG International BV, reveals that excessive corrosion on the interior of the gondola support beam dangerously reduced the beam’s wall thickness over the years, leading to the catastrophic failure of the 18-year-old ride during operation.
Safety vs. thrills
The fact is that many rides are decidedly unsafe, and many have disastrous track records. Back in 2014, the following theme parks and carnivals in the U.S. made the list of having the most deadly accidents:
Waterslide at Waterworld USA in California — Water slides have consistently been a top cause of injuries, often geared with poor safety precautions and short walls. In 1997, 33 high school seniors crowded the slide, causing it to collapse under the weight, resulting in one death and 32 injured.
In August 2016, a 168-foot tall water slide in Kansas City, Kansas, decapitated a state lawmaker’s 10-year-old son. It was the world’s tallest water slide at the time, and Kansas was generally known for its light regulation of amusement rides. Settlement has been reached by the family against SVV 1 and KC Water Park, two companies associated with the Texas-based water park operator Schlitterbahn, the general contractor, the raft manufacturer and a company that consulted on the 17-story “Verruckt” waterslide.
Haunted Castle at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, New Jersey — While not a ride, this castle became deadly on May 11, 1984, when it burst into flames and eight teenagers died when trapped inside. While arson was the likely cause of the fire, the park was charged with lack of safety precautions such as sprinklers and smoke detectors. However, Six Flags was not held responsible because the castle was considered a “temporary structure.”
In addition to deaths, there have been many serious injuries arising from amusement rides, such as when a 10-year-old girl became unconscious after riding a roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in southern California. In addition, a park employee suffered traumatic injuries after being struck by a train returning to the station of the Flight Deck coaster at the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, California. Both of these accidents occurred in June 2015. In the same month, there was a carnival ride accident in Waterville, Maine, when a roller coaster ride became unhitched and injured three children.
Tracking injuries but not deaths
The Amusement Safety Organization tracks significant injuries, but not deaths, for rides at 42 theme parks in the U.S. For the five-year period of 2013-2017, the number of significant injuries totaled 3,003. Of these, only 16.8% of injuries occurred at the top 10 theme parks in the U.S. Many injuries occur from amusement park accidents.
The most prominent injuries include head, neck and back injuries; death as a result of falling or being thrown from a ride; stroke from trauma to ligaments in the neck; traumatic brain injury from G-forces; stresses by extremely rapid speeds or from detached objects hitting the rider’s head; brain aneurysms from fast rides; lacerations, broken bones and torn ligaments; and drowning on water slides, “lazy river” rides or other water rides.
Saferparks is a non-profit public service organization founded to help prevent amusement ride accidents through research, information sharing and effective public safety policy. Their website intends to educate consumers about known safety issues related to the use of amusement rides, and to centralize data describing amusement ride injuries and regulatory requirements from a variety of jurisdictions.
The organization provides support for the Council for Amusement and Recreational Equipment Safety (CARES), which is the organization of government officials responsible for enforcing amusement ride and recreational equipment regulations. CARES maintains a list of rides that are required or recommended to have non-destructive testing (NDT) and/or other maintenance actions completed prior to their continued operation, with such NDT performed and signed by an individual certified to conduct the specific NDT in accordance with the American Society of Non-Destructive Testing’s recommended practice SNT-TC-IA.
Amusement park claims
There are a number of claims available to those injured on amusement park rides, but the two most common are negligence and product liability.
Negligence — This type of claim is generally the result of carelessness, recklessness or inattention of a park or ride employee. For example, the ride operator may abruptly stop the ride or incorrectly latch a seat belt. One of the leading contributors to park injuries and fatalities is improper operation of the ride. In a standard negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove that the law required the defendant to be reasonably careful, that the defendant was not careful, and that this carelessness caused the plaintiff to be injured.
An amusement park is responsible for the actions of its employees, whether it is from the employees doing something or their failure to act. Some examples include failure to maintain the equipment in a safe condition (rust and corrosion), failure to post warning signs (health risks and size/weight requirements), improper training of operators, failure to inspect the ride, worker inattention (using cell phones or eating while operating), and failure to properly check restraints or instruct riders.
Product Liability — This type of claim results when an accident is caused by a defect in the ride or its components, or due to improper maintenance, lack of or inadequate repair, improper operation, inspection or use. For example, the faulty design of a lap bar may cause it to unlatch, leading to the rider falling to the ground.
Mechanical failure of the ride is one of the leading contributors to amusement park injuries and fatalities. If there are structural or design defects in the ride, this could give rise to claims against the manufacturer of the ride or a component part for defective product or workmanship. In such cases, the plaintiff(s) would need to prove that the structure, equipment or component part was defective and that the defect was the direct cause of the injury or death to the victim. The Fire Ball incident in Ohio would fall into this category.
Assumption of risk
However, there are some states holding to an assumption of risk rule. If the park or employee can show that the victim assumed the risks of a certain ride, the park will not be held liable. This assumption of risk would not be a defense for unknown risks, such as those described under product liability. However, if someone knows that participating in an act or event is inherently dangerous, but chooses to participate anyway, then that person is said to have ‘assumed the risk’ associated with that activity. The key here is that the victim must have been aware of the risks involved in order to assume them.
If a victim is injured as a result of not complying with posted requirements for the ride, this non-compliance may be used as a defense by the amusement park. Examples include a rider not complying with the posted age, weight or height requirements, when a rider unlatches the seatbelt on a fast-moving ride and falls or is thrown from the ride, or they voluntarily jump the ride, then there would be no justification for a negligence or product liability claim.
While a carrier cannot prevent individuals from not adhering to the rules of a ride, it can do solid underwriting and loss control in order to avoid exposing themselves to possible catastrophic claims. While loss control surveyors are not expert ride inspectors, having loss control ensure proper completion of ride inspections according to state requirements by a properly certified inspector, verification of properly trained employees to operate the ride and know emergency and safety procedures, and completing a visual inspection can help ensure the safety of the ride. Applications are extensive and underwriters need to review them carefully and be familiar with the risks involved. Amusement rides are a unique exposure, and insuring them requires careful review and analysis of risk.