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Rare Jury Trial against Disney Finds Amusement Park Not Guilty of Endangering Visitors or Misleading them in Warning Signs

The first jury trial in six years alleging safety problems on a Central Florida theme park ended in Disney’s favor Monday, May 3, when it was decided that that no dangerous condition existed on The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror that might have caused a 68-year-old man’s stroke three weeks after riding it.

A Disney spokeswoman was unsurprisingly ‘pleased with the verdict’ and assured reporters that safety is Disney’s ‘primary concern.’ Plaintiff Marvin Cohen of Philadelphia, now 80, can request a new trial and file a notice for appeal in the 10 days following the jury’s verdict.

Cohen’s attorney, Barry Novack of Los Angeles, believes that Judge Jose R. Rodriguez’s rulings before and during the trial prevented his client from pursuing all his claims that the ride’s warnings misled him, and therefore skewed the ultimate result. He plans to review the rulings and could then appeal.

The three-week trial in Orange County Circuit Court saw jurors deliberate just three hours, returning a plain statement: “Was there a dangerous condition on the tower ride called Tower of Terror on March 28, 1998, about which the Walt Disney World Co. either knew or should have known, by the use of reasonable care? No.”

Considering the estimated 3,400 injuries a year nationwide that are caused by fixed site rides and require emergency room treatment,* it’s hard to believe that every ride-related case filed in the last six years in Central Florida, a veritable Mecca of amusement parks, was settled or dismissed before reaching trial. In a one-year period during 2004-2005, there were four deaths and 19 injuries reported by Disney at its Florida theme parks, many due to bus and transportation crashes.

Orlando Sentinel readers who read the newspaper’s report of the Cohen trial in “The Daily Disney” section were nearly 100% sympathetic to the city’s financial keystone. Comments to the online article call the lawsuit “as frivolous…as any I have ever heard of” and “an outrageous use of the taxpayers money.” Only one reader stated that “the rides are not ‘safe’ in a general sense… [and] subject the riders to stresses and sudden accelerations, decelerations, bumps and twists, exactly as one would experience in a car accident, including sudden g-forces.”

Interestingly, there is no federal agency with jurisdiction over fixed amusement rides such as theme parks; that is left to state and local authorities to inspect, monitor and regulate. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has jurisdiction over mobile rides, such as those found at fairs, carnivals and parties.

*The CPSC estimates that in 2004 there were 3400 injuries requiring emergency room treatment caused by fixed site rides.