For Tim Melago of West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, the really good
life is a rapid succession of ups and downs.
Tim, a 1996 University of Pittsburgh graduate, may well be America's foremost roller coaster enthusiast. He's ridden 440 of them, lives a few miles from the famed Kennywood amusement park and created a comprehensive web site devoted to thrill rides.1
But roller coasters increasingly are under assault from personal injury lawyers who seek to link brain injuries to G-forces on theme park rides.
Amusement park operators -- whose prosperity depends on repeat business -- are being accused by the plaintiffs' bar of seeking to rattle their customers' brains. Never mind that some 320 million Americans visited amusement parks last year and only a handful came away with even a scratch.
There's no doubt that a lot of riders of thrill rides step off the cars afterward with adrenaline surging through their blood veins like off-course skyrockets. But that's why they go on rides with names like "Shivering Timbers," "The Georgia Cyclone" and "The Phantom's Revenge." Thrill rides wouldn't be thrill rides if they didn't thrill your workaday worries out of you for at least one summer weekend.
The people who go on the real thrillers know exactly what they're getting into when they buckle their seat belts and slide the restraining bar into locking position. And they've been duly forewarned by a bevy of signs as they wait in line for their few minutes of sheer madness.
Even if they haven't paid attention to the warning signs, most people have enough common sense to know what's dangerous and what's not.
If the personal injury lawyers get their way, such people will be able to sue for big-time bucks just by claiming that the ride shook them up.
That would be silly. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that injuries at fixed-site amusement parks in the U.S. totaled only 6,594 in the year 2000_ an injury rate just over 2 per 100,000 visits. That's down 14 percent from the previous year although attendance increased.
What an infinitesimal figure compared to other popular summertime activities. In 1997, trampolines accounted for 82,722 injuries and swimming pools another 62,812. The least safe form of recreation that year was bicycle riding, which racked up 544,561 injuries.2
Many of the injuries at fixed-site amusement parks, it should be noted, are self-inflicted by people who fail to read warning signs or do dumb things like stand up on rides that require them to remain seated and restrained.
That happened over the Memorial Day weekend at Denver's Six Flags Elitch Gardens when a man stood up after unlatching his seat belt and working his way out of the lap bar restraint in a ride called the "Rainbow." In a few seconds, he lost his balance and plunged to his death. The death was ruled an accident. No regulation on Earth would have saved him.3
Much of the impetus for new suits is being spurred by self-styled safety nannies.
A prime mover in the lawyers' current assault on amusement parks is Claus Peter Speth, a controversial New Jersey pathologist. Speth, now 66, has compiled a list of alleged brain injuries "associated" with amusement parks.
Speth's list spans 36 years and cites only 58 cases including 11 linked to foreign amusement parks.
Speth's motives are questionable. He was convicted of witness tampering in a bizarre case in 1997. A judge found that Speth during a morgue visit deliberately broke the neck of a skeleton of man who committed suicide in the county jail -- apparently so the man's family could sue the county by claiming he had died from mistreatment.4
Nevertheless, Speth's list has been enough to prompt Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) to promote an "Amusement Ride Safety Act." The act would empower the CPSC to federally regulate an industry now overseen by state and local governments.5
Personal injury lawyers are thrilled. They've often piggy-backed on CPSC's vague regulations to file multi-million dollar lawsuits.
Less thrilled will be families who flock to amusement parks when they see ticket prices rise as lawyers file salvos of multi-million lawsuits and insurance companies react by increasing premiums. Some parks may go out of business.
For millions of Americans, summer may never be the same.
Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].
2 For more statistics on recreational injury rates, see the International Association of Amusement parks and Attractions web site fact sheet "Comparison of Amusement Ride Injury levels to those of Other Recreational Activities," published June 1, 2002, for a two-page review, or visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission website at http://www.cpsc.gov/library/data.html and download "Amusement Rides: Amusement Ride Related Injuries and Deaths in the United States: 1987-2000" for a more exhaustive 48-page review.
3 "Amusement Park Victim Identified, Investigation Continuing Into Fatal Accident," May 28, 2002, The Denver Channel, downloaded from http://www.thedenverchannel.com/den/news/stories/news-148307520020528-110552.html on July 2, 2002.
4 "Souter Rejects Ex-Coroner Speth's Request to Lift Gag Order," Associated Press State and Local Wire, October 27, 1998
5 For more on Speth and Markey, and this issue generally, visit "How Safe Are Roller Coasters," June 26, 2002 at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/06/25/earlyshow/living/parenting/main513414.shtml for a CBS Early Show transcript of interviews with Markey and with Bill Powers of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
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