A terrible accident occurred on a Fire Ball ride at the Ohio State Fair and sent passengers flying. A teenager was killed and seven more were injured. Five remain in critical condition a week after the incident. The best description of the ride is the top picture that accompanies this post. The coroner’s report indicates that the teen died of blunt force trauma after suffering injuries to his head, trunk and lower extremities.
The manufacturer has now reported that “excessive corrosion” on the interior of the gondola support beam reduced the beam’s thickness and led to the accident. Per experts , corrosion can be caused by the type of metal used, type of coating, weather to which the amusement is exposed, age of the ride (the Fire Ball in question had been in use 18 years), water, salt and acidity levels. Motion also can speed up corrosion. Further, as something is shaken around, new surfaces can be exposed which can also lead to corrosion.
Organizations that invite the public to their premises have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the safety of visitors to the property. This requirement includes a need to inspect the premises periodically at reasonable intervals to locate and remedy unsafe conditions. What is a reasonable frequency depends on the circumstances. The greater the likelihood of a dangerous condition developing, the more frequent must be the inspections. For example, the owner of a catering house with, say, one banquet on a Monday night, does not need to inspect with the same frequency as on a Saturday night when perhaps five banquet halls are in service. The more people present at a given location, the greater the likelihood someone will inadvertently create a potentially dangerous condition, such as spilling coke on the floor making it slippery. Also, the more people present at a facility, the greater the likelihood someone will encounter an existing dangerous condition and be hurt.
Amusement parks and fairs have a duty to make those periodic inspections of their facilities including the condition of the rides. Corrosion occurs slowly over time, ostensibly resulting in substantial opportunity for inspectors to detect the problem and undertake whatever remediation would have been needed. Thus, if the corrosion was on the outside of the ride, we could conclude that whoever performs the inspections should have discovered the deterioration long before it reached serious proportions. Once discovered, repairs should have been made. Therefore, at first blush, the fact the Fire Ball’s corrosion was not discovered suggests negligence (carelessness) on the part of the inspector. Based on respondeat superior (the legal rule that holds employers responsible for the negligent acts of their employees), the inspector’s employer – the park, the fair, or the county – would also be liable.
However, facts involved in lawsuits are frequently not as clear cut as they may first appear. Indeed, the circumstance here is much more complicated. Turns out the corrosion on the ride was internal and therefore not easily discoverable. Checking for internal corrosion requires special equipment such as ultrasound, experts say. State documents show that an independent company that specializes in in-depth ride testing had cleared the amusement for use as recently as October, 2016. That company used ultrasound in addition to a visual check of the ride’s structural components.
So, was anyone negligent? The fair? The manufacturer? The inspectors? The ride operators? The facts are not at all clear. The purpose of discovery, the procedures prior to trial whereby the parties exchange information, is a critical part of litigation because it serves to unearth the facts. As the discussion herein on corrosion indicates, expert witnesses (people with specialized knowledge relevant to the case and not likely to be known by lay people) will be important at trial to help jurors understand the corrosion issues involved with the ride and the accident. Also, keep in mind that places of public accommodation (fairs, theaters, stadiums, hotels, restaurants, etc.) are not insurers of guests’ wellbeing. The fact that someone was injured on their premises or while using their products does not necessarily mean they are liable. Liability results only if someone’s negligence caused the accident. Who if anyone in the Fire Ball accident is liable remains to be determined.
Note: Following the accident, the manufacturer of the ride sent a notice to all Fire Ball operators, advising them to re-inspect the ride including the thickness of the gondola support beam and any cracks and corrosion. The alert also advised that the device’s joints should be tested magnetically. This is an important precaution to help the manufacturer avoid further accidents and, if any occur, reduce any liability it might have.
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