Injuries at theme parks go unreported

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1 Injuries at theme parks go unreported By John Tedesco - Express-News June 28, 2009 If you re visiting one of San Antonio s theme parks this year, you d probably want to know why 14-year-old Hailey Kuhn fell off a rollercoaster platform and was paralyzed at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Or how Chelsea McKay, 11, broke her ankles going down a water slide at Splashtown. Or that Sarah Perry, 34, claimed the brakes went out in her go-kart at Malibu Grand Prix, causing her to ram a metal pole. But these cases of broken bones and trauma went unreported to state officials despite a Texas law requiring ride owners to disclose serious injuries that are associated in any way with a ride. The San Antonio Express-News discovered the unreported injuries during a three-month investigation. The newspaper examined the safety record of theme parks and carnivals in Texas that annually draw millions of visitors. There s no question the vast majority of thrill-seekers safely enjoy amusement rides. But the industry also considers accidents an unfortunate but unavoidable cost of doing business. The Express-News found some ride owners could be doing a better job keeping their guests safe and disclosing accidents to the public. And the state s Department of Insurance, which has some degree of oversight of amusement rides in Texas, at times enforced the law inconsistently. Our primary focus is enforcing the law that s on the books regarding insurance and safety inspections, Texas Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin told the Express-News in a written statement. Fortunately, in the past, we ve been able to identify violators and bring them into compliance on numerous occasions. There are challenges, however, in enforcing the law on self-reporting of injuries because we re dependent on the honesty and accuracy of the operators. Going forward, the Legislature may want to revisit the issue to shift from a system of self-reporting to something more stringent. Young victims Texas ride owners told state officials that more than 1,800 people were injured on or near amusement rides from 2000 to 2008 an average of about 230 per year.

2 Most victims suffered only scrapes and bruises, and the official tally of injuries has declined over the years. But there have been painful mishaps at least 120 people broke bones; nearly 60 people had teeth chipped or knocked out; and four people suffered amputations. When something goes wrong at a theme park or carnival, the amusement-ride industry often blames riders who fail to follow directions. Yet according to state records, many of the people hurt in Texas were children and teenagers who lack the judgment of adults. Half the injured were under age 18. Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Department of Insurance, said it s not surprising that so many young people were hurt on amusement rides, since they frequently ride them. He asked the Express-News not to publish a chart revealing the ages of injury victims. Why is the prevalence of Alzheimer s greater in nursing homes? It s because it s an age-related risk, Hagins said. And amusement rides, they re predominately attended by young people. But nursing homes don t usually blame their residents for their ailments. Children as young as the age of 1 have suffered serious injuries on amusement rides in Texas. The latest fatality was Fatima Cervantes, 9, who fell from a spinning ride called the Sizzler a week before Christmas in December Cervantes dropped on the ride platform while the Sizzler was still spinning. I saw the girl trying to climb off of the metal platform when one of the arms of the ride hit her and (dragged) her across the metal decking, ride operator Kenneth Leib told Austin police. I was in shock. Police ruled the girl s death an accident. The ride owner, Pat Crabtree, stated in his injury report that the girl raised herself from her seat during the ride. Other witnesses said the motion of the ride caused Cervantes to slip under the restraint. Crabtree s report made no mention of why the lap bar failed to protect Cervantes in the first place. In an interview, Crabtree called the death a terrible accident. He noted the Sizzler s manufacturer later recommended adding seat belts to keep riders firmly in place. People lose their common sense around amusement rides, Crabtree said. There was nothing physically wrong with the ride. Texas law requires ride owners to report serious injuries to the Department of Insurance, which provides the reports to anyone who asks as a service to consumers.

3 The public has a right to know, said Michael Millsap, a former Texas lawmaker who wrote the legislation. Kathy Fackler learned firsthand the importance of disclosing injuries. The foot of Fackler s son was partly severed more than 10 years ago on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland. Months later, a guest died at Disneyland, and Fackler was stunned when she read a news story stating the park s safety record was clean for the previous four years. Her son s accident wasn t mentioned. The episode compelled Fackler, a computer programmer, to create the Web site Saferparks.org, which collects injury data from various states to show the safety record of amusement rides. The worst thing you can do for prevention is to sweep that stuff under the rug, Fackler said. This industry is very reactive to problems that are put out in the daylight. Yet many problems at amusement parks never see the light of day. 'A gray area' On June 12, 2007, Hailey Kuhn was waiting in line on a hot day to ride the Poltergeist, a rollercoaster of fun loops and turns at Fiesta Texas. Kuhn wasn t feeling well from the heat. According to a lawsuit filed by her family, she fainted on the ride platform and fell through a gap between the rollercoaster cars. Unlike other rollercoasters at Fiesta Texas, there was no safety netting or other safeguards under the cars to catch her. Kuhn fell 10 feet and landed on a concrete block. She s now paraplegic, the lawsuit says. Martin Bozer, park president of Fiesta Texas, declined to comment on Kuhn s accident, citing the pending litigation. Court papers filed by the park s lawyer called it an unfortunate accident that occurred when Kuhn lost consciousness due to health reasons. Fiesta Texas didn t disclose Kuhn s devastating injury to state officials. And two years later, the park has not installed any safety netting under the Poltergeist s boarding platform to prevent similar injuries. The hot South Texas sun still beats down on riders standing in line there is little shade and no fans or water misters to keep them cool. Our park has a great deal of shade, Bozer said, adding that it was unclear if the Poltergeist s lack of shade caused Kuhn to faint. With so many people visiting theme parks, experts say ride owners need to identify and deal with potential hazards even the ones that seem unlikely to be a problem.

4 While the chances may be small of that (accident) happening, clearly the chances increase if there are more people riding, said Michael Toothman, a former vice president of the American Academy of Actuaries. Any one accident might be a freak accident, Toothman said. But a badly managed operator will have more of those freak accidents. A state regulation passed in May 2000 states that serious injuries in any way associated with the ride must be reported to state officials, who interpreted the regulation broadly in the past. They said it applied to injuries that occurred on a ride, its platform or its exit and entrance ramps, records show. But when a reporter asked about Kuhn s accident, state officials said it didn t have to be reported by Fiesta Texas. They said Kuhn wasn t hurt during the operation of the ride. It s kind of a gray area, said Hagins, the department spokesman. He said perhaps the lawsuit filed by the Kuhn family would prompt new safety measures at the park. The Department of Insurance doesn t plan on penalizing Fiesta Texas or requesting new safety measures. Stephen Lazor, a lawyer representing the Kuhn family, expressed shock at the stance taken by state officials. How many more (riders) have to fall there until they get the message? Lazor asked. Hidden injuries State officials have known for years that amusement ride owners haven t been disclosing their full safety record. In the early 1990s, when Fiesta Texas opened to the public, the park still was working out the kinks of its flagship ride, the Rattler. Internal documents showed hundreds of riders were treated for neck and back pain, head injuries and bloody noses from the towering wooden coaster. Yet Fiesta Texas reported to the state that only a handful of people had been hurt. In a 1994 letter, lawyer Randall Jackson notified state officials about the reporting discrepancy and urged them to take steps to protect the public. Five years later, the Express-News published a series of reports that revealed how Fiesta Texas, SeaWorld and Splashtown were failing to report injuries and fatalities. Splashtown never had reported one injury park owner Keith Kinney erroneously claimed water parks were exempt from the law.

5 And in May 2007, television station WOAI checked the safety record of Malibu Grand Prix, a go-kart track. Malibu had told state officials that 24 people had suffered cuts, bit tongues, strained backs and other injuries from 2000 to After that, nothing was disclosed. Yet in court papers, Malibu guest Sarah Perry alleged the brakes on her go-kart had stopped working March 31, Court records allege she hit a pole and the cart went airborne. Paramedics were called and Perry was transported to University Hospital, according to an EMS report. Malibu didn t report the incident until WOAI began working on the story. Malibu denied it was at fault and said the go-kart brakes had worked fine. It settled the lawsuit with Perry in a confidential agreement. A message left last week with Malibu wasn t returned and its lawyer declined to comment. At Splashtown, the water park didn t disclose the case of Chelsea McKay. When she was 11 years old, McKay went down a water slide at Splashtown on July 26, 2004, and landed wrong. Chelsea was just kind of laying in the very shallow water. I could tell she was in a lot of pain, said her mother, Joyce. Park employees gave the girl an icepack, and her mother drove McKay to her father s chiropractor office. McKay s father, Nigel, X-rayed her and found both ankles were fractured. McKay was in a wheelchair for seven weeks. The family sued Splashtown, which denied it was at fault. The case eventually was settled. Messages left at Splashtown weren t returned. Conflicting answers When the Express-News asked whether Splashtown should have publicly reported McKay s broken ankles, Hagins initially responded in an that the incident did not require an injury report because the injury did not require medical attention (she was treated with an ice pack on premises and her mother took her home). After a reporter asked what was stopping ride owners from giving all victims icepacks, sending them home, then denying that an injury ever occurred, Hagins responded that Splashtown should have reported the broken ankles as soon as the park learned the severity of the injury. In the Malibu case, state officials said the injury wasn t serious enough to be reported under state law, even though Perry complained the brakes had malfunctioned. Hair-splitting by ride owners and state officials about what needs to be reported to the public could easily be avoided, said Robert Niles, a journalist and former Disneyland employee who founded ThemeParkInsider.com, a Web community of amusement ride fans who track accidents and review rides.

6 Parks themselves keep reams of injury data that seldom see the light of day, Niles said. They have massive paper trails of anything that happens out of the ordinary... There s a lot that happens internally within the industry that the public doesn t see. Niles said ride owners ought to disclose every mishap and let the public decide what s important. For example, Niles said, heat exhaustion can be a serious problem at crowded theme parks, yet most people don t think about the importance of pacing themselves and staying hydrated. Maybe they would if cases of heat stroke were disclosed. That s so 100 percent preventable, Niles said of heat-stroke cases. It does kind of bug me that (theme parks) don t give out those stats. Hagins said that under Texas law, insurance companies play an important role in overseeing thrill rides. Each owner must have an insurance policy in case someone is killed or injured, and insurance inspectors must check each ride annually. The system here in Texas is one where we re monitoring for insurance purposes, Hagins said. But at Fiesta Texas, the park is self-insured for injury claims of up to $2.5 million. It compensates injury victims out of its own pocket and the Six Flags chain filed for bankruptcy this month. Officials said Fiesta Texas is not violating the law by insuring itself. For expensive injury claims that exceed $2.5 million, Fiesta Texas has a policy with Ace American Insurance. In such cases, Fiesta Texas is supposed to pay the injured person $2.5 million, and Ace Insurance would pay the rest of the claim. What this means for Kuhn and her mounting medical bills is unclear. The legal proceedings in the paralyzed girl s lawsuit have halted as Six Flags bankruptcy plays out. Kuhn s lawyer criticized state officials for allowing Fiesta Texas to insure itself. What kind of game is that? Lazor asked. They re not doing their job to regulate this industry. State officials said Fiesta Texas self-insurance policy is legal and they don t plan to challenge it. Coming Monday: Mishaps mar happy memories at Kiddie Park.

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