Fairs, Amusement Parks, and What You Should Know About Rider Safety

by Terry Bryant

As the Kansas City Schlitterbahn water slide tragedy of 2016 winds its way toward final resolution, it is again drawing the news spotlight, even if the sensationalism of the accident and upcoming criminal negligence trials tend to draw attention from the bigger picture.

Here’s what we now know that we didn’t on the day 10-year-old Caleb Schwab was decapitated while riding the nearly 170-foot-tall “Verrückt” water slide: The owner, Texas-based Schlitterbahn Waterparks and Resorts, is alleged to have rushed to build a dangerous and structurally complicated ride and then to have ignored the facts before them that it would be dangerous, even fatal, for those who rode it.

The slide (at the time the tallest water slide in the world) was the centerpiece of the company’s Kansas City park when it opened in 2009. Then, on a hot August day seven years later, Caleb was killed, his two “raft mates” seriously injured, and a handful of other park guests suffered physical and psychological injury due to the ride’s sudden, tragic malfunction.

The ride was immediately closed and remained so through the duration of the law enforcement’s almost two-year, detailed investigation. In March 2018, indictments were handed down against the company’s former director of operations and two engineers who designed the ride. The charges included involuntary manslaughter against Tyler Austin Miles, the ops director, and several counts of aggravated battery, aggravated endangering of a child, and interference with law enforcement during its investigation.

Investigators say the company knew Verrückt was unsafe but opened the poorly designed ride anyway. They even had fair warning, because investigators also allege that several riders had already suffered head and neck injuries before Caleb’s death.

Still, investigators allege, Schlitterbahn and Miles kept the ride open, hid reports of those injuries, as well as other distressing safety problems from law-enforcement at the time it was investigating Caleb’s death. Dates have yet to be set for the criminal trials of these company officials, although, as of this date, the civil claims by all injured victims and Caleb’s family have been satisfied. In early July, once the investigation was completed, Schliltterbahn began taking the slide down – as quickly as possible. It’ll be gone by Labor Day, company officials say.

But Wait … There’s More

The sensationalism of the Schlitterbahn story makes good national headlines, and it has sent a chilling message to permanent amusement park owners of all kinds. It has certainly impacted the long-delayed July grand opening of the local Big Rivers Waterpark & Gator Bayou in New Caney, which has been pushed to the Fall; and it won’t be fully complete until the 2019 outdoor season. The delays are likely due to extra emphasis on safety, in the wake of the KC Schlitterbahn tragedy. It seems that Schlitterbahn may have learned its lesson since its Galveston park’s “MASSIV Monster Blaster” water slide, now the “world’s tallest water coaster”, has so far posed no danger to qualified riders.

But this whole story begs a bigger question. In 2016 – the latest year data was available – emergency rooms across the U.S. saw almost 31,000 injuries from amusement ride accidents, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Soft-tissue injuries involving ligaments, muscles, and tendons were most common. Serious harm such as concussions and brain injuries, paralysis, internal injuries, and wrongful death made up only a very small percentage. CPSC says they occurred on fixed-site rides at major amusement parks, as well as on mobile rides at local carnivals, state and county fairs, and shopping malls.

Children comprise half of reported amusement park ride injuries. Those between 10 and 14 make up the largest sub-group – almost 18%. And small children age five to nine comprise 75% of “forceful ejection” accidents, when a rider is abruptly discharged from an amusement park ride.

So even though we pay close attention to the sensational, the comparatively mundane poses greater danger. Take care when riding an amusement ride – ANY ride. And if you or your children are injured, we encourage you to contact our experienced amusement ride lawyers to help you understand your potential legal claims against responsible parties.