This week we learned of two state sanctions related to two high-profile amusement ride fatalities this summer: the death of three year old Jason Dansby while riding the Python Pit roller coaster at Go Bananas family entertainment center in Illinois and the death of Sgt. James Hackemer while riding the Ride of Steel roller coaster at Darien Lake. While the cases are quite similar in many respects, the sanctions imposed are quite different. With respect to Go Bananas, the owner of the facility has been charged criminally with violation of the state’s amusement ride safety law and faces a potential jail term of up to a year and / or a fine of up to $2,500 while in the case of Darien Lake no criminal charges were filed and the facility was merely ordered to re-train ride operators and post better signage warning guests about ride safety requirements.
So why the difference? After all, Illinois and New York have similar ride safety laws (at least in this respect) and these two cases were quite similar in both the severity of the event and the conclusions reached by the state following the investigation. It could reasonably be expected, therefore, that these states would impose similar sanctions or at least similarly serious sanctions at the end of the investigations. After all, in a court of law similar cases tend to be treated similarly. But these cases clearly weren't treated similarly. Why not? Was it that the state found one facility or ride to be “less safe” than the other? Was it that the state found one operator better than the other? I think the answer to both these questions, at least on the state of the current record, is no. Rather, I think its likely that the difference in legal sanctions in these two cases can be attributed, as much as anything else, to political pressure exerted on state officials.
Before going any further, its may be helpful to briefly discuss how similar these two cases are. Obviously, the magnitude of these incidents are quite similar. Both resulted in the death of a guest. However, the similarities go further. According to published reports in the media, both states conducted a full investigation of their respective rides and neither found anything mechanically or electrically wrong that would have contributed to the fatality. In both cases, there are allegations that operator error contributed to the cause of the accident. In New York, state investigators have found that the Ride of Steel ride operators violated park policy when they allowed Sgt. Hackemer, a double leg amputee, to board the ride. In Illinois, lawsuits filed by Jason Dansby’s family (as well as a bystander to the incident) allege that the operator did not act quickly enough to stop the ride when it became apparent that Jason was in trouble (note, however, that these are only allegations in a civil suit – Illinois investigators, to the best of my knowledge, have not agreed with these conclusions)
The relevant law in each state is quite similar too. In both Illinois and New York, owners of amusement rides are required to obtain state permits, have minimum insurance coverage, maintain maintenance and operational inspection records, and adequately train operators. In both states, violations of amusement ride laws can result in serious sanctions ranging from revocation of operating permits to criminal liability. Yet despite these similarities, each state imposed a vastly different sanction. Why?
Political pressure. To be clear, I’m not talking about politics in the self-involved, petty, mud-slinging, campaigning type of way we so often see from our elected officials. I’m using the term in a more meaningful way to refer to the accountability our state officials have to the people that elected them (or their bosses) and the pressure these officials undoubtedly feel to address the voices and concerns of the electorate. Looking at these incidents through the lens of political pressure, these incidents are markedly different – and that could well explain the difference in sanctions imposed.
Looking first at Illinois. First, the fact that Jason Dansby was a young child infuses his case with a level of public sadness, and perhaps outrage, that cannot go unnoticed or unaddressed by state officials. This was a young boy with few life experiences. In the eyes of all but the most callous, his death was meaningless and grossly premature, and under such circumstances people want to blame someone and hold that person accountable. Moreover, Jason’s family quickly filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the owner of Go Bananas – a lawsuit that was soon followed by a second lawsuit brought by a guest that tried to assist young Jason and that seeks damages for infliction of emotional distress. In Illinois, therefore, state officials were faced with the death of a child, understandable public outrage at his premature demise, and legal action from family and bystanders against the facility. This adds up to an immense amount of pressure on state officials to take serious action against the facility to satisfy the outrage and sadness of their constituents and the victim’s family.
New York, on the other hand, had a very different set of political circumstances. First, Sgt. Hackemer was a grown man and a war hero. Many in the public, including members of his own family, have gone on record expressing their belief that he knew the risks and assumed them anyway in an effort to have a “normal” life. From a visceral standpoint, there is no doubt that Sgt. Hackemer's death is very different than that of Jason Dansby. While his future was bright, there was no public outrage at “lost innocence” that the Illinois officials faced. Moreover, the reaction the family has been significantly different. The family is on record in the media stating that they do not hold the park responsible for Sgt. Hackemer’s death and stating that they do not intend to file suit against Darien Lake or its operators. Under these circumstances, New York’s officials must have felt comparatively less pressure to take serious action against the facility in the name of satisfying public fervor.
The nature of the crime with which Illinois has charged the owner of Go Bananas speaks to the state’s reaction to public political pressure. Tellingly, the state has not alleged that the owners of Go Bananas violated any Illinois state amusement ride law that had any obvious connection to the death of Jason Dansby. Rather, the state has charged Go Bananas’ owners with failure to maintain paperwork required under state law. Such a violation could have been revealed at any annual state inspection or upon investigation into any less serious injury. The fact that the state has imposed these criminal charges now, in the wake of Jason Dansby’s death, seems designed to send a message to the public that the state is taking serious action against the facility, even as it cannot point to any violations of state amusement ride law directly related to the death itself. New York’s officials, on the other hand, unburdened by the level of public pressure exerted on their Illinois counterparts, have imposed a far less serious sanction, requiring re-training and better signage, seemingly aimed not so much at retribution and blame as in prevention of future occurrences.
Of course, while this may explain the difference in severity of sanctions imposed in these cases, it does little to give any sense of consistency or predictability to owners and operators of amusement rides going forward. The role of the public in state investigations is a variable that simply cannot be accounted for ahead of time, but that can have a significant effect on the outcome of the proceedings. While courts may strive to achieve similar results in similar cases, amusement operators must remember that state investigations have none of the independence or autonomy of a court. State officials must answer to the public that elected them and that demands certain results - even where those results are not necessarily warranted or consistent with prior events.