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Thursday, June 22, 2006

TortsProf Blog: Mission: Lawsuit

Last year, a four-year-old died a couple of hours after riding Mission: Space at Walt Disney World. They've now filed suit:

The suit contends that Disney was negligent in letting the small child board the intense ride; that it posted insufficient warnings of Mission: Space's dangers; and that it was ill-prepared for the medical emergency and did too little to help the stricken boy.

Earlier this year, a 49-year-old German woman died a day after falling ill after the ride. Press reports in both deaths indicate that the riders likely had preexisting heart or other conditions that contributed to their deaths, though most reports indicate that the ride forces were also involved. In the child's case, the condition was evidently unknown; the adult was aware of her conditions. Mission: Space is a spaceflight simulator. From my understanding, the ride is made up of rotating ride vehicles on a centrifuge-style device. Inside the capsules, the acceleration of the centrifigue simulates launch conditions, while the capsules' rotations simulate various maneuvers. The gravitational forces on the ride are likely not significantly greater than those on many rides at a typical carnival, though other than warnings (see below), those forces are generally much more obvious to someone at a county fair than at Mission: Space, where the actual ride motion is hidden from guests' views. Additionally, it is, I think, fair to say that patrons of a carnival likely expect more intense thrills than those at a Disney park (whether or not those expectations are reasonable).

The contrast between the intensity of Mission: Space and other rides at WDW, along with the fact that the ride itself is essentially hidden from view made warnings that much more important. And indeed, riders at Mission: Space are met with thirteen warning signs and, as many news stories noted at the time, they're provided with vomit bags. This story has a photo of one sign. This site has many videos, including the warning video shown to each rider at a point where they have the opportunity to decide not to ride, but requires registration. Google Video has a video (itself motion sickness-inducing) of the full experience, including a ride operator's exhortations to read the warnings and Gary Sinise, of all people, providing warnings as well. Finally, this site has the text of many warnings, including these:

For safety you should be in good health, and free from high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness or other conditions that can be aggravated by this adventure.

CAUTION! You may experience motion sickness on this adventure! Mission:SPACE is a realistic and intense simulation of space flight. It is unlike anything that you have ever experienced.

The warnings discuss the intensity of the ride and the fact that people with many preexisting conditions ought not ride. The signs are in English, though warning brochures are available in many other languages. I'm not sure which signs existed when, but I know that extensive warnings have been part of the ride since it started.

Since the second death, Disney has added a version of the ride with the capsule rotation but without the centrifuge motion -- in other words, there's motion, but no significant gravitational forces.

Setting aside the allegation of a failure to respond properly (about which I know nothing), the lawsuit presents a fairly fundamental question in amusement litigation: when a ride does exactly what it is supposed to do, and when that action is well-disclosed to riders and is safe for the vast majority of people, who, if anyone, is responsible when that action causes foreseeable injuries to people with unknown preexisting conditions? Or, for that matter, known preexisting conditions, as in the case of the more recent fatality?

I don't think anyone has suggested that the boy's parents should have known (or did know) of his heart condition, and I certainly am not doing so here. So it's not facially plausible to say that they shouldn't have let him on the ride, as often follows injuries to young children.

And though the lawsuit apparently suggests otherwise, I haven't seen anything else that suggests that the boy's youth was part of why he was prone to injury -- if anything, I would assume that younger riders would be less likely to be prone to injuries of this sort. So it's similarly not facially plausible to say that the park should bar young riders.

As for a warnings claim, I don't think I've ever seen a ride with such thorough signage. Indeed, a non-amusement attorney I spoke with last week made a similar comment. The non-English question is interesting, but good non-English warnings were available on request.

That leaves design defect. If the ride is defectively designed because it caused this injury, it is probably impossible to design a high-intensity thrill ride for anyone that would not be defectively designed. What probably caused these deaths is exactly what makes the ride what it is. I am sure the "green mission" (the name given the no-spinning version of the ride) is fun, but I am equally sure that most kids would opt for the spinning version.

A few years ago, a prominent roller coaster designer made an poorly-considered comment about something like an "acceptable number of deaths" from amusement rides after a series of incidents involving safety equipment and restraint problems. I think the number for restraint failures should no doubt be zero. But for injuries like this, it's a trickier question. If the number of post-ride heart injuries should be zero, then the rides just won't exist.

As in every context, warnings can only do so much -- with unknown preexisting conditions, by necessity, and even with known preexisting conditions, by the choice of riders to ignore them. That means if society wants rides like Mission: Space (or even the Gravitron), there will be injuries to innocents. (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I am interested in amusement safety -- the issues are much more generally relevant than one might think at a glance.)

In the end, the suit may be the result of Disney's reputation -- whether deserved or not, I don't know -- of settling just about everything. I can't recall any park injury cases from any Disney park going to trial (and I know that a number have settled), but that may well be a function of them having relatively few injuries more than a policy not to take cases to trial.
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TortsProf Blog: Mission: Lawsuit

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