Six Flags Roller Coaster Tragedy Raises Many Legal Questions

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The Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas, one of the world’s largest roller coasters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tragic roller coaster death that happened at Six Flags Over Texas on Friday raises many legal questions which may eventually be addressed in the courtroom. If it doesn’t get to the courtroom, it is a safe bet that Six Flags settles with the family.

Rosa Ayala-Goana, 52, died Friday evening at Six Flags in Arlington when she fell out of the legendary Texas Giant roller coaster. Police have so far determined that no criminal activity was involved, so no further police investigation is under way. There are also no Texas or federal agencies charged with investigating amusement park accidents.

That means the question, “Who is to blame for Rosa Ayala-Goana’s death?” will probably be addressed in civil court.

The Texas Giant is Six Flags’ premier attraction — a 14-story-high roller coaster advertised as the tallest steel-hybrid coaster in the world. The ride opened in 1990 as an all-wooden roller coaster; in 2011 it received a $10-million makeover with the installation of steel-hybrid rails.

Many legal questions will be raised and investigated by the various parties involved in the tragedy. Some questions already being discussed in the media which may eventually be scrutinized in a civil trial include:

• Was the roller coaster car built properly? Is the manufacturer at fault?

The car was manufactured in Germany by Gerstlauer Amusement Rides. The company has dispatched its own investigators to Texas to gather evidence.

• Does Six Flags provide sufficient warning of the inherent danger of its “thrill rides?” Do those warnings minimize any liability Six Flags may have?

The amusement park’s website says: “All amusement rides carry an inherent risk and it is the rider’s responsibility to read all warnings and contraindications to ensure they are healthy and physically capable of riding.”

Can Six Flags argue that riders know the inherent danger they subject themselves to when they board one of the world’s tallest roller coasters? In addition to the warning above, the Six Flags site provides this description of the ride: “The legendary new Texas Giant delivers beyond vertical banked turns and … the steepest drop of any wooden coaster at 79°.”

It was at that steep drop that Ms. Ayala-Goana fell from her seat, according to one witness. “She goes up like this,” witness Carmen Brown told a reporter, raising her hand up in the air. “Then when it drops to come down, that’s when it released and she just tumbled.”

• Has Six Flags and the Texas Giant received and passed the required inspections?

Texas requires amusement parks to show proof of an annual safety inspection by a certified engineer. Several new reports say Six Flags received a “state-issued sticker” for the ride in February.

• Were employees sufficiently qualified and trained to operate the Texas Giant? Is it true that Ms. Ayala-Goana expressed concern about her safety before the ride began? Did park employees fail to respond properly to her concern?

Ms. Brown, the witness quoted above, told several news organizations that before the ride began, Ms. Ayala-Goana told an operator that she was not secured properly in the roller coaster car. The cars have T-shaped hydraulic lap bars that make multiple clicks as they are locked into place. Ms. Ayala-Goana reportedly objected that her bar clicked just once.

“They didn’t secure her right,” Brown told the Washington Post. “One of the employees from the park — one of the ladies — she asked her to click her more than once, and they were like, ‘As long you heard it click, you’re OK.’ Hers only clicked once. … She didn’t feel safe, but they let her still get on the ride.”

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Ms. Ayala-Goana’s death is a senseless tragedy. Several friends and neighbors have told reporters that she was a devoted wife and mother who was very active in her church. She is survived by her husband, Antonio, reportedly a preacher, her adult son Amado Esparza, who was with her at Six Flags that day, and at least two other children. Ms. Ayala-Goana was originally identified in some reports as “Rosy Esparza,” but the Tarrant County Medical Examiner released her correct name on Monday. She lived in the Oak Cliff neighborhood southwest of downtown Dallas.

Some statistics:

• The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions says amusement park rides are safe, and the chances of being injured on one are one in 24 million.

• A March 2013 report of the National Safety Council says there were 1,204 ride-related injuries in the U.S. in 2011, with about a third of them happening on roller coasters. That calculates to about 4.3 injuries for every 1 million visitors. Of the 1,204 injuries, 61 were deemed serious.

• The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency, issued a 2005 report that estimated only one out four people die each year on U.S. amusement rides.

• The Texas Giant won Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Award for the best new ride of 2011. The award is based on an international poll of amusement park fans.