About Me

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I am a consultant and general counsel to International Ride Training LLC as well as a practicing attorney in Avon, Connecticut. A particular focus of mine is the legal needs of the amusement and tourism industry. My focus on the amusement industry derives from my pre-law career as an operations manager with Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Universal Orlando. Having started my career as a ride operator at Cedar Point in 1992, I progressed through the seasonal ranks and ultimately became the Manager of Ride Operations and Park Services at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I also worked in Universal's operations department during the construction and development of Islands of Adventure. Today, I am an active member of the New England Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions and the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. I have been invited to speak at amusement industry meetings and seminars and have worked on a variety of matters relating to this industry.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Special Report - Tragedy On The Texas Giant: A Call For Focus Amid Distraction

Its been a bad weekend for the amusement industry.  First, an incident on Friday evening at Cedar Point's Shoot the Rapids ride resulted in several minor injuries, with one guest treated and later released from a local hospital.  Luckily, all indications at this point in time are that this incident looked worse than it actually was.  Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the incident at Six Flags Over Texas, occurring just a couple of hours later, that tragically ended the life of Rosy Esparza after a fall from The Texas Giant roller coaster.  Understandably, these incidents, particularly the death of Ms. Esparza, have garnered a huge amount of attention from the local and national media, not to mention social media, over the last 36 hours.  That's to be expected when an event like this occurs.  Over the next few days, there will be a plethora of media reports, tweets, Facebook posts, and editorials opining about what happened in Texas, how it could have been prevented, and what is "wrong" with the amusement industry that such an event could occur.  In the midst of this maelstrom, I think it's important to keep some perspective and to keep a few things in mind so that the important work ahead of us can get done and get done right:

1.  Until The Investigation Is Complete, No One Really Knows Why Rosy Esparza Fell From The Texas Giant

Six Flags and other officials have only just begun the investigation into Ms. Esparza's death and it will likely be weeks or months before they reach a conclusion on the cause of the accident.  The investigators will, in all probability, not be releasing detailed facts to the media or discussing the incident except in very general terms before then.  While the Esparza family may be privy to some of the details of the investigation, it is also unlikely that they will be releasing detailed information to the media before the investigation is concluded.  Thus, it is imperative to recognize that, until either the investigation is complete and / or investigators release specific information, everything appearing in a media report should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.  This includes:
  • Reports, based on tweets, from a rider on the train who says that he was two rows behind Ms. Esparza and saw her lap bar release and witnessed Ms. Esparza fall out of the train.  I have no doubt that this individual did see Ms. Esparza leave the train, but investigators will need to determine whether a guest two rows behind her could have seen the condition of her lap bar or whether this was merely an assumption based on the events he witnessed.
  • A statement from a witness in the station, waiting directly behind Ms. Esparza, who says that, as she was boarding, Ms. Esparza asked a ride operator whether her lap bar was secure because it only "clicked once."  Many lap bars with ratcheting mechanical locking mechanisms indeed click as they are lowered into place, however the Texas Giant may not actually use these types of lap bars.  Other reports from industry experts indicate that the Texas Giant actually uses hydraulic locking mechanisms on the lap bars and that these bars do not "click" like their mechanical counterparts.  Again, this will be something that investigators will need to determine.

  • Suggestions that Ms. Esparza's physical dimensions may have contributed to this accident.  While there have been incidents on other rides in the past where large guests have not been adequately restrained by lap bars, I am not aware of any such incidents on similar rides / trains as on the Texas Giant.  I have seen no reporting from anyone with any particular knowledge about whether Ms. Esparza's size was beyond the capabilities of the lap bars on the train or the design limitations of the seats and bars themselves.  Investigators will undoubtedly work closely with the ride's manufacturer and engineering professionals to assess this information.  Anything else is speculation right now.

2.  Two Serious Incidents In One Night Does Not Mean That There Is A Safety Problem In The Amusement Industry

When one tragic incident occurs in the amusement industry, the facility where that incident occurred understandably falls under some public scrutiny.  Who were the operators?  What are the policies in place governing ridership?  Were those policies followed?  Was the ride inspected?  When?  Did it pass?  These and other questions are routinely asked in the wake of a tragic event occurring in isolation.  But when two events occur within hours of each other, it is tempting to suggest that this is somehow indicative of a larger safety problem in the amusement industry and to ask all of these questions of the industry as a whole.

Tough questions should be asked when incidents like these occur.  But what most in the general public will overlook is that, while the media and the public may ask these tough questions in the wake of a tragedy, the industry asks itself these same tough questions every day.  The amusement industry, like the aviation industry, is singularly focused on guest safety on a day-to-day basis.  The industry does not wait for something bad to happen to focus on safety; the industry focuses on safety, above all else, every day, all year round.  At any given time, innumerable operators and owners are working together, regardless of competitive interests, to share best practices to make the industry safer.  From national and regional trade groups to seminars and conferences, the industry keeps a keen eye on safety from an engineering and maintenance perspective, an operational perspective, and from a guest perspective.  We are constantly asking what can be done better to keep guests safe.  The fact that two bad things happen in the span of a few hours does not mean that the industry is not paying attention to safety.  It only means that two bad things happened in the span of a few hours. 

3.  The "Patchwork" Of State Regulation Is Not To Blame For Ms. Esparza's Death

I said before that no one currently knows what caused Ms. Esparza's death.  That is 100% true.  But I do know that her death was not caused by the fact that Texas has different amusement ride regulations than Oklahoma, or Ohio, or Missouri.  As always happens when a ride-related death occurs, the media has already begun highlighting the lack of national oversight of the amusement industry.  Interviews are already making their way around the internet pointing out the fact that different states have different ride regulations - the implication being that uniform regulation would somehow have prevented the occurrence from happening.  

But, of course, that can't be the case and anyone claiming otherwise is not basing their opinion on the facts as they are known.  Ms. Garza may have fallen from the Texas Giant because of a mechanical problem on the ride.  She may have fallen because of her own conduct.  Or she may have fallen for some reason we do not even have reason to speculate about right now.  But she didn't fall because of the so-called "patchwork" of state regulations governing the amusement industry.  Indeed, in the pertinent aspects of regulatory oversight, Texas, a state with a national reputation for deregulation, is not especially dissimilar from other states' regulatory regimes.  For example:
  •  Texas requires annual ride inspections, just as most other states do (by insurance inspectors, in this case, who - as I have noted before - have no incentive to let bad operators slide).
  • Texas requires operators to report any ride-related injuries, beyond those treatable at First Aid, and any deaths to the state, just as many other states do.
  • Texas also requires operators to report any and all adverse actions taken against them by any other state with respect to rides operated in Texas and to post signage advising all guests on exactly how they may report a perceived unsafe ride or ride operator to the state - a relatively unique regulatory requirement.  
Indeed, while the talking heads have already begun, once again, suggesting that national oversight is needed, not one of them can say with any specificity why Texas' regulation is inadequate or what national regulation would have done differently that would have prevented Ms. Esparza's death from occurring.  In fact, it is worth noting that while the media routinely notes that the federal government, through the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has regulatory jurisdiction over mobile rides, the CPSC actually has no regulations governing operation, maintenance, or any other aspect of ordinary operations.  The CPSC has authority to investigate accidents on mobile rides after the fact, but has, for decades, relied upon the states for day-to-day oversight of the industry.  The fact that different states have adopted different ride regulations has nothing to do with the cause of this accident, and any suggestion to the contrary is nothing but a distraction that takes valuable time away from actually investigating and determining the cause of this terrible occurrence.

Undoubtedly we will learn a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the events at Six Flags Over Texas in the coming weeks and months.  We will hear even more speculation about them.  I urge each of you to filter out the distractions, the speculation, and the dramatic rhetoric and to concentrate on the important issues here: someone has died at an amusement facility and we owe it to her, her family, and to the public to determine why that happened and what must be done to make sure it doesn't happen again.  That is the task at hand, and it is a task that all involved in the industry approach with the utmost respect and diligence.  Let's let them do their work. 

1 comment:

  1. Erik:

    Well thought out and well written. If only there would be a way to prevent the media from putting their mouths and keyboards in gear before engaging their brains. Still wouldn't solve the problem of media elements seeking to be the first without any concern for accuracy.

    Hopefully the entertainment industry "measures twice" before cutting loose with any responses to this or future tragedies.

    Peter Olesen
    Entertainment Concepts, Inc.


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