Waterpark Owners Face Criminal Charges for Death Caused by Substandard Slide



A ten year old boy was killed while riding the world’s largest waterslide at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City, Kansas. After climbing up 264 stairs, riders descend the slide on a three-person raft that ends in a pool of water. The slide was built to thrill. Its name is “Verruckt” which means “insane” or “crazy” in German. Prior to the boy’s death, at least 14 riders were hurt on the attraction. Among their injuries were concussions and broken bones.

The raft on which the hapless boy, Caleb Schwab, was riding derailed. It hit a pole supporting netting designed to keep riders from flying off the ride. An autopsy revealed the boy was decapitated when the raft hit a pole while airborne.

An investigation has revealed that the ride’s design violated many aspects of longstanding industry standards. Not surprising given that the designer was a high school drop out with no technical or engineering credentials. Accusations were made that the design and construction of the attraction were rushed to impress producers of the Travel Channel’s “Xtreme Waterparks” series.  

The ride originally had an age restriction of 14 but that requirement was abandoned in favor of a minimum total weight requirement per raft. Workers were directed to cover up the age restriction notice on signs.

On the day of the incident causing death, others had complained about improperly working Velcro straps used to secure riders in their seats.

The boy’s family pursued a civil case. The parties settled for approximately $20 million.

An indictment just issued against park officials. The operations director has been arrested and charged with 20 felony counts including involuntary manslaughter, meaning recklessly (aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustified risk of injury or death) killing another person[1]; aggravated endangering of a child, meaning recklessly causing or permitting a child under the age of 18 years to be placed in a situation in which the child’s life, body or health is endangered[2], and aggravated battery meaning knowingly or recklessly causing great bodily harm to another person[3]. The manslaughter charge refers to Schwab’s death. The other two charges relate to injuries to riders in the 14 mishaps on the slide prior to the death. Also facing charges are the park’s owners and the park itself.

A corporation can be liable for criminal charges. Some states require that a “high managerial agent” (senior management) be involved by either participating, encouraging, or recklessly disregarding the criminal act. In Kansas the statute reads, “A corporation is criminally responsible for acts committed by its agents when acting within the scope of their authority.” An agent includes directors, officers, and employees.[4]

The sentence for manslaughter ranges from 3-11 years in prison with a maximum fine of $300,000. The sentence for aggravated child endangerment is 5-17 months in jail and a maximum fine of $100,000. The sentence for aggravated battery includes a 1-11 year sentence and maximum fines of $100,000 - $300,000.

The indictment reads in part, “In place of mathematical and physics calculations, [the builders] rushed forward relying almost entirely on crude trial-and-error methods. . . When rafts began going airborne during testing, the park started testing at night to avoid scrutiny.”  The complaint also alleges that company officials admitted in a televised interview that they feared for their own safety when they went down the slide. This suggests they were aware of the risks the ride created. By failing to address those risks, they arguably acted recklessly. 

The park responded to the indictment, “Our staff has demonstrated the highest dedication to safety, to ensuring all rides have operated in accordance with our strict protocols.” Yet investigators found park employees ignored serious issues such as the passenger restraints being too weak and the rafts being poorly designed and tending to derail at the crest, putting riders’ heads dangerously close to the netting and the poles.

Per the indictment, while the investigation was underway, the operations director hid or destroyed relevant documents.  

He and the park are also charged with interference with law enforcement[5] which includes concealing evidence and giving false information to a police officer. The sentence ranges from 5-232 months in jail and a potential fine of $100,000.

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What actions should the waterpark have taken before opening the waterslide in question?

[1] Kan. Stat. 21-3404.

[2] Kan. Stat. 21-5601.

[3] Kan. Stat. 21-5413.

[4] Kan. Stat. 21-5211.

[5] Kan. Stat. 21-5904