Tragedy struck last week for a Kansas family whose 10-year-old died during a ride on the world’s tallest waterslide. The accident occurred on the Verruckt, a raft-ride at the Schlitterbahn WaterPark in Kansas City, Kansas. While the park has reopened for business, the 168-foot slide remains closed during an ongoing investigation. The accident comes during a week when at least four amusement park accidents have left children aged 3 to 16 hospitalized.
According to media reports, the boy, who is the son of Kansas state representative Scott Schwab, died of neck trauma and possible decapitation. Two women in the same raft with Caleb Schwab were treated for facial injuries. The women were not related to the boy who was seated with them for the ride.
Verruckt has been open for two years at the Kansas City park, and has drawn some criticism for the straps that hold riders in the rafts being Velcro instead of buckles. During preliminary tests, sandbags used as dummies flew off the ride, prompting designers to change the descent angles and delay the opening.
The ride, which reaches speeds of up to 65 mph. during the 17-story drop, has a minimum height requirement of 54 inches. Two to three riders in a single raft must also meet a combined weight of 400-500 pounds. Riders must make reservations as a group and are given a specific ride time. However, there is also a stand by walk-up line for single riders and those unable to make a reservation.
With about 30,000 children suffering injuries each year at the nation’s amusement and water parks, the Schlitterbahn death and other recent accidents raise serious questions about safety and liability. Kansas statutes don’t specifically mention water slides, but permanent rides must be inspected at least once a year by a qualified individual. Schlitterbahn had passed previous state audits despite discrepancies in record-keeping.
The park has been sued for negligence at least three times in the past few years. Two of the suits involved another inner-tube water ride, but none of the suits have involved the Verruckt water slide. All were settled out of court for undisclosed terms.
Amusement park riders accept some responsibility in that they are expected to follow the posted rules and regulations. Where a ride states a specific height requirement or weight restriction; or advises riders with pre-existing medical conditions not to participate, it is axiomatic that the rider must faithfully abide by those conditions.
Personal injury attorney John Yannone commented, “Riders do not waive all liability claims simply because of posted ride regulations. While tort and liability laws vary across the nation, there are general legal assumptions that hold some universal applicability. In product liability law, one of the foremost principles is that the product is free of defects that may pose a hazard to health and life. A rider boarding a rollercoaster naturally assumes that the track, rollers, cars, and safety restraints have been designed and tested to protect her from injury or death.”
Therefore, when a serious accident like the one in Kansas City happens, both riders and owners must be looking to the law for guidance on liability. Already, media reports are surfacing of riders who complained about the Verruckt restraint system being too loose or failing. This could have a significant impact on Schlitterbahn’s liability in the death of 10-year-old Caleb Schwab.
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