Theme Park University reader Adam asks, “I saw your recent article on The Smiler incident in Alton Towers and which got me thinking. When these theme park accidents occur, who is held responsible? The individual who caused the accident? The theme park? Love the site and keep up the great work!”
Great question, Adam. The short answer to your question is: it depends. Every case is different as well as how each county, state and country laws that pertain to how attractions are run. Some attractions can run with next to no government oversight or regulation while others have strict guidelines and annual inspections and all accidents are reported and filed and, if need be, investigated.
The first thing you have to consider in these incidents where people are hurt or killed on theme park rides is malicious intent. Was the operator or engineer putting customers in danger willingly and knowingly with the intent to harm them? I have yet to hear of a story where this is the case, but every day is a new day. Assuming that the individual can’t be proven guilty of malice or even suspected of it, generally speaking the employee is off the hook for criminal charges. More on that later.
Now it comes to financial responsibility. Let’s say an employee makes a mistake and puts a customer in a dangerous situation and physically injures them or it could even lead to death, are they responsible for medical bills, loss of wages or pain and suffering? Most likely not.
Vicarious liability is a term often used in employee accident cases while on the clock. Vicarious liability is a doctrine of law that asserts that the actions of an agent are essentially the same as the actions of the principle directing the agent. This means that an employer is considered to be the “principle,” and when the employer tells employees (the agents) to do something, it is just as if the principle is the one acting. Of course, this rule only applies if the agent is actually in the process of doing something for the principle at the time when the accident happened.
In the end, the company where the incident occurred will most likely be held liable for monetary damages to an individual. Proper training, outdated safety protocols or simply hiring people who are not qualified to do a job is enough to send the bill of monetary damages to a theme park or attraction operator rather than the individual who caused the accident (or their insurance company). Also, let’s face it. The company can usually afford to pay such damages where you’d only see an itsy bitsy fraction of that cash from an individual.
Now take everything I just said and throw it out the window for a second. In June 2015, a horrific freak accident occurred at a Taiwanese water park. This park was having a special event complete with a live DJ at the end of a wave pool. At one point during the evening, colored powder was released into the air to douse the crowd nearby. The problem was that the powder is flammable, but who cares when it’s only going to hit water anyway?
Unfortunately, the powder ignited like flash paper when it crossed paths with an extremely hot lighting system above the DJ booth and flames literally rained down on everything in its path. If you’re unfamiliar with this and want to see it for yourself, click the video below. Warning: this is not for the faint of heart. It’s not safe for work and I don’t think I have ever seen a more horrific theme park accident in my life. Please use caution before clicking.
Over 500 people were injured with many suffering third degree burns to over 50% of their body. Who is to blame? The operations team who organized the event? The company who supplied the powder? The tech who loaded it? The Chinese and Taiwanese governments handle these types of cases very differently than in the United States.
Within 24 hours, two men were arrested: the head organizer of the event and the technician in charge of lighting and hardware. They have since been released on bail. The organizer, Lu Chung-chi, apologized publicly for what happened, getting down onto his knees in front of reporters. “We shoulder ultimate responsibility,” he said, according to CNN.
Formal charges have not been filed as of this writing, but they very well could be as investigations continue. Meanwhile, could you imagine a head honcho at Disney, Universal or Six Flags being arrested for something like this? Clearly, someone needs to be held responsible. It was a horrific accident, but odds are, not malicious intent.
Anyway Adam, thanks for the great question. If you have a question you’d like answered here at Theme Park University drop me a line at JoshYoung@ThemeParkUniversity.com!
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