The danger of thrill rides is supposed to be make-believe. That’s what makes them so popular. They offer a chance to raise adrenaline levels and get the blood pumping without the actual risk of serious injury or death. However, theme parks and carnivals sometimes fail at providing this safe dose of excitement, and the danger becomes horrifyingly real.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that amusement park rides, both thrilling and sedate, caused 22 deaths between 2010 and 2017, as well as 30,900 emergency room visits in a single surveyed year.
If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one to an unsafe amusement park ride, the Stoddard Firm can help.
Six Flags Over Georgia Has a Long History of Death and Injuries
Georgia’s arguably best-known theme park has seen plenty of accidents in its nearly fifty-year tenure, many of them springing up in clusters. For example, back in 1984, a computer malfunction caused the planes on the “Great Air Race” ride to drop out of position, injuring 34 passengers. Exactly one week later, four more people were injured when an unrelated malfunction caused a coaster to stop abruptly.
The following decade, another pair of accidents occurred that were similar enough that they’ve largely become fused in public memory. First, in May of 2002, a 58-year-old worker walked into a restricted area beneath “Batman, the Ride.” When the coaster car passed, a rider’s legs collided with his head. He was killed, and the rider, a 14-year-old girl, was hospitalized. Later, in June of 2008, a 17-year-old boy entered the restricted area under the same ride. Conflicting explanations for his presence include retrieving a lost hat and taking a shortcut back into the park after lunch. He was fatally struck by the coaster itself, and some reports indicate that he was decapitated.
These incidents were likely the inspiration for the popular urban myth about a Six Flags guest having their head “kicked off” while walking under a coaster. Though this rather colorful description isn’t exactly accurate, the reality was no less deadly. If anything, the myth being an amalgam of two separate accidents is even more concerning, in that it indicates a possible pattern.
To Six Flags’ credit, neither of the two victims were supposed to be where they were when they were struck. However, the multiple deaths might be a sign that the park needs a lockout system, similar to those used in industrial facilities with dangerous machinery, to make it impossible to reach this area while the ride is in operation.
A year after the teenage guest’s death, an incident occurred on the “Wheelie” ride that staff had much more opportunity to prevent, even as it was happening. The ride, which was phased out in 2012 to make way for the “Sky Screamer,” consisted of a wheel rimmed with cars, which would spin horizontally at first, lifting the cars off the ground. Then, still spinning rapidly, it would lift up into a vertical, Ferris-wheel-like position and lower back down. The entire ride normally lasted about two minutes, but in May of 2009, its limit switch malfunctioned, causing it to continue spinning for an estimated 5-10 minutes more. The ride was equipped with an emergency stop, but the ride operator did not activate it, due to what she described as a miscommunication with her supervisor. Thankfully, no one was permanently hurt, but four riders were sickened to the point of vomiting.
More recently, in May of 2018, the “Six Flags Railroad” ride caught fire, injuring two employees and a guest. The employees had to be sent out for hospital treatment, while the guest was treated at the on-site medical center. The damage could have been far worse, but luckily, the ride happened to be empty at the time. The injured guest had been standing nearby.
Coaster Riders Have Died with No Visible Malfunctions
Sometimes it doesn’t take a stall, a crash, or a fire for someone to be hurt or killed on a theme park attraction. Occasionally, theme park deaths are more mysterious, including some of those at Six Flags Over Georgia.
Back in 1989, an apparently healthy 11-year-old boy boarded the “Z-Force” coaster with his family. Witnesses said he seemed fine at the beginning of the ride. There were no recorded malfunctions, and no external trauma to the boy was observed, but by the time the ride ended, he was unconscious. Staff shut the ride down and attempted resuscitation while waiting for an ambulance, to no avail. The boy was pronounced dead at a nearby medical center, and an autopsy did not clarify his cause of death.
Later, in 2006, something similar seemed to happen to a 45-year-old man while riding “Goliath.” His death was ultimately attributed to a heart attack.
It’s possible that these guests’ sudden deaths would have happened no matter what, and that Six Flags was simply where they happened to be at the time, but the power of G-forces — the physical phenomenon that gives thrill rides their signature sensations — should not be underestimated. When acting upon the human body, G-forces can forcibly redistribute a person’s blood, starving the brain or putting stress on the circulatory system. They can burst blood vessels, shift organs, and even break bones. The longer a person is exposed to a high G-force count, the greater the chances of death.
Most theme parks post warning signs explaining that people with known circulatory problems should not ride attractions that would expose them to extreme G-forces, but many people with risk factors, such as aneurysms, never find out about them until something goes wrong. In addition to posting warnings, parks and ride engineers need to consider the G-forces their rides will produce, and whether they’re likely to pose an excessive danger to the average guest.
Water Parks, Large and Small, Carry Particular Threats
Dedicated water parks and parks that feature water attractions, including but not limited to Six Flags, need to anticipate and address a whole extra set of dangers. In addition to the obvious risk of drownings, water slides and similar attractions require different types of engineering problem-solving than traditional track-and-car-based theme park rides. Any attraction involving water also needs a carefully maintained balance of chemical additives.
The Hurricane Harbor extension of Six Flags Over Georgia has allegedly had trouble with this last requirement. In May of 2014, a 14-year-old girl was playing in the wave pool with her friends. Park attendants reportedly evacuated the pool in response to complaints of a very strong chlorine smell, tested the water, added additional chemicals, and reopened it to guests, including the girl and her friends. That evening, the girl developed respiratory difficulties and was put on an oxygenation machine, which then failed during treatment. The girl did not survive, and her family is now suing both the manufacturer of the faulty oxygenation machine and Six Flags for allegedly causing her condition in the first place.
Typical drowning accidents shouldn’t be overlooked either. In May of 2011, at Wild Adventures in Valdosta, a 3-year-old girl was pulled unconscious from the “Paradise River” attraction and resuscitated by lifeguards. Seconds count in a drowning, and this story could easily have lost its happy ending if staff had acted any less quickly. A spokesperson for the park refused to comment on rumors that a recent mass dismissal of park lifeguards could have contributed to the girl reaching the point of unconsciousness in the first place.
Small children aren’t the only water park guests who can fall victim to drowning. The following year, at Lake Lanier’s Margaritaville Water Park, a 21-year-old man was found unconscious in the water below the Fun Dunker slide. Staff attempted resuscitation while waiting for paramedics, but the man was pronounced dead at a local medical center. His death was later declared an accidental drowning. Friends say he was known for his athleticism and suspect he must have hit his head somewhere inside the slide before drowning at the bottom.
Water parks must also manage many of the same hazards as standard theme parks, including tech malfunctions, fires, and crowding issues. In July of 2020 at Six Flags White Water, a fire broke out in the maintenance building that houses the pump equipment for the wave pool. No one was hurt, but the entire park had to be evacuated while staff fought the flames. One guest described being unable to reach the front gates for 30 minutes, in spite of staff directing the crowd to keep moving. If the fire had been larger and more aggressive, the situation could have turned tragic on a frightening scale.
Smaller Parks and Carnivals Can Be Just as Dangerous
As alarming as many of the Six Flags incidents may be, seeking amusement park fun on a smaller scale may not keep families any safer. Aside from its water feature troubles, Wild Adventures has also been the target of multiple lawsuits concerning its land-based rides, and Georgia’s fairgrounds have their own history of serious accidents.
In 2005 in Ellijay, a pair of 12-year-old girls suffered serious leg lacerations when a trailer awning opened into the path of the spinning carnival swing they were riding. The next year, a 3-year-old was fatally electrocuted while climbing the stairs to a carnival slide in Jasper. Two years after that, a car detached from a kiddie ride at the Carroll County Fair Grounds, causing leg injuries to two 9-year-old boys. Then, in 2016, a 13-year old boy slipped out of his car on a ride at the Coosa Valley Fair when the door suddenly opened in midair. He had to hold on by hand while waiting to be rescued.
Civil Law Requires Theme Parks, Engineers, and Maintenance Contractors to Anticipate Guest Safety Needs
Sadly, official ride safety laws often aren’t enough to protect guests from harm. This isn’t that surprising, especially since federal regulations only apply to temporary carnival attractions. Here in Georgia, we’re fortunate enough to have state-level safety codes governing both carnivals and theme park rides, but even so, we still see more than our share of ride-related tragedies.
Some of these accidents are likely due to code violations, others to flaws in the codes themselves, but thankfully, civil law allows victims to hold park owners accountable in either case. The important question to ask after an accident is not whether the park broke any laws, but whether the owner could have foreseen the problem and done more to prevent it.
In addition to the park owner’s responsibility to take all reasonable steps to keep guests safe, third-party ride designers and maintenance contractors also have a responsibility to make sure their work doesn’t endanger the public. Sometimes the fault for an accident will fall on an engineering company, sometimes a maintenance company, sometimes a park owner, and sometimes some combination of the three.
The Stoddard Firm Has Experience in Many Areas of Product and Premises Liability
To collect a fair settlement after a ride accident, you and your lawyer must establish:
That you were harmed on the ride, and how badly
That the harm you suffered was caused by unsafe conditions that the owner knew or should have known about
That the owner failed to take reasonable steps to mitigate the danger
The skilled and dedicated lawyers at The Stoddard Firm are experienced in all of these areas. We excel at making sure judges and juries understand the full severity of our clients’ injuries, and exactly how the defendants failed in their legal duties. We’re committed to taking the profit out of lax safety standards, and to winning our clients the resources they need to put their lives back together as thoroughly as possible.
To discuss your individual situation and how we can help in a free consultation, just give us a call at 678-RESULT, or reach out through our online chat function.