Are the Rides at Traveling Carnivals Dangerous?

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    Throughout the United States, traveling carnivals are a beloved summer staple for children and adults alike.  But if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, you may want to think twice about where you go to find it.  Unlike their permanent, fixed-location counterparts, mobile fairs are not subject to federal inspections  — which means the potential for catastrophic injury is an ever-present risk. If the government isn’t regulating carnival rides, who is?

    Traveling Carnival Accidents

    The amusement industry is a big business.  According to the IAAPA, or the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, some 300 million guests take nearly two billion rides every year, primarily during the hot summer months.  The IAAPA also states, “Safety is the number one priority the amusement park industry.”

    It’s hard to objectively agree or disagree when it comes to traveling carnivals, considering only 7% of them presently report any accident data.  In other words, 93% of these fairs — virtually all of them — are mysteries from a safety standpoint.  Do they have a clean record, or a terrible record? It’s effectively impossible for patrons to know, since the data simply isn’t readily available.  One would think that a stellar safety record would be a sales-driving profit booster, so the decision to withhold accident information seems slightly unusual.

    As for the slim sliver of data which is available for analysis, the numbers indicate that injuries are increasing by up to 12% each year.  While it might be argued that population growth makes a minor contribution to this steady increase, it is nonetheless a disturbing trend which suggests that something is continuously going wrong.  But what?

    The problem can be traced back largely to the Consumer Products Safety Act, which does not bind mobile attractions such as fairs and carnivals to federal inspection.  Not only are the rides subject to bare minimum inspections, they are plagued by a host of other issues.

    For instance, carnival rides are constantly traveling.  This means that they are disassembled and reassembled, day in and day out, often by laborers hired for low wages on a short-term basis.  Not only are they constantly broken down and rebuilt (potentially increasing the chance of a mistake being made in a sheer numbers game), they are also regularly passing through different locations with different climates.  Materials can shrink or expand, tighten or loosen, or short-circuit completely.

    Nor do the potential problems end with assembly.  The operators at carnivals are frequently under-trained and underpaid, placed into temporary jobs which only last through the few months of the peak season.  This contributes to a somewhat lax safety culture, and in turn, the overall risk of injury to visitors.

    The Most Dangerous Rides Aren’t What You Think

    When it comes to the types of rides which are most likely to injure passengers, you might be surprised.  While it’s true that roller coasters are historically the worst culprit (accounting for 16 out of the 51 amusement park deaths which occurred from 1987 to 2000),  even seemingly tame rides can be very dangerous.  A study published in the medical journal Clinical Pediatrics found that merry-go-rounds and carousels — often dismissed as “boring” or “lame” in favor of bigger, faster attractions — accounted for an unexpected 21% of all park injuries.

    Inflatable attractions can also deceptive from a safety standpoint.  While it seems hard to believe that soft, stationary attractions could ever pose a threat to patrons, a report issued by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) in 2005 stated that inflatable ride accidents displayed a “statistically significant upward trend over the period from 1997 to 2004.”

    According to OABA, or the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, the CPSC reported over 2,500 injuries in 2004 alone.  On average, about 5% are categorized as catastrophic injuries which require hospital care.

    Fairs and Carnivals are Regulated By a Patchwork of Standards and Regulations

    As has been discussed on this blog in the past, there is no national standard for safety for carnivals, amusement parks, and fairs. Rather, patrons rely on a patchwork of industry, state, and local regulations for their safety. What this means is that the level of safety and regulation can vary significantly from state to state. While in some states, government licensing board may perform inspections, in other states this task may be left to a private company. In some states, the safety procedures and inspections are not known because there are no reporting requirements.

    According to a 2013 study by USA Today, all carnival and fair operation oversight in Michigan is performed by state or local officials. This oversight falls to the Michigan Carnival-Amusement Safety Program which has been in operation since 1966 and is administered by the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) in Michigan. LARA currently oversees over 200 carnival companies and almost 900 rides. LARA inspects rides after alterations or a transfer, requires reports after an incident, and provides consumers with information regarding enforcement and disciplinary actions.

    Carnival Ride Safety is Not Regulated at the Federal Level

    There are no federal regulations or oversight on how the rides are set up, maintained, or operated.  That job is left to the individual states and the rules vary widely.  Many states have no regulations on carnival rides whatsoever and leave oversight to the private sector.  There have been spates of accidents involving carnival rides and with particularity inflatable rides which have prompted calls for tighter regulation across the United States.  To date very little or nothing has been done to resolve this important concern.

    In 1981, Congress limited the authority of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to monitor rides “not permanently fixed to a site”.  In just a few sentences in a 600 page agricultural bill, Congress deregulated the $10 billion dollar amusement park industry without insuring that state or local governments would fill the gap.

    Often times, ride manufacturers, owners, operators, and insurers may handle safety as they choose and often have the right to keep such safety information private.  It is estimated that less than 7% of all carnivals or facilities provide injury or accident data.  Yet despite this minimal data reporting, it was estimated that carnival accident injuries are rising 11 to 12% each year with approximately 5% of the injuries in the serious to catastrophic category requiring hospitalization.  More than likely the actual figures far exceed these numbers.

    While the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), a trade association for fixed amusement parks representing more than 4,000 facilities, suppliers, and individuals from more than 90 countries including parks and attractions in the United States contends there is no safer form of recreation and advocate the regulation of safety by “self-policing”, many traveling fairs and carnivals around the nation are not within the IAAPA umbrella.

    Do Carnival Rides Get Inspected?

    Although many states issue amusement and carnival permits, in fact a state employee may never inspect the amusement machinery at carnivals.  Instead they leave it to the insurance company for the ride operators or owners to give each ride a “look over” by a person who may not be properly trained or possess the necessary qualifications.  There has been a continuous debate in the amusement industry concerning the safety of fixed site amusement parks and carnivals.  Namely, fixed site amusement parks routinely claim to be safer than traveling carnivals because they do not move the amusement ride on a regular basis requiring the constant assembly and disassembly of the machinery.  Carnival owners and operators claim they are safer than fixed site amusement parks because of the regular assembly and disassembly of the ride and the constant inspection.

    One issue that remains and is seldom addressed is that when carnivals assemble and disassemble the rides, it is often done by unskilled laborers who are frequently turned-over.  Many times temporary day laborers are employed and since they do not travel with the carnival, they have very little training, and do not possess a level of expertise as employees of fixed park amusements.  Typically, the assembly and disassembly is guided by a foreman who travels with the show and directs temporary local workers or laborers.  Many times there is little regulation other than the laborers are given a 15 to 20 minute spiel.  Many carnivals hire people from foreign countries on a part-time basis with minimal education or lack of understanding the English language and there are often communication issues that arise if there is a problem.

    In some states, where the regulations are stricter than others, inspectors may inspect each setup or delegate a daily inspection to the owner and operator.  However, if no one is supervising or checking the owner or operator, there are really no sites checks and balances.

    The public has little information or data to assess the safety level of amusement activities.  Many times carnivals set up individual thrill rides and maintenance companies and independent corporations to forestall litigation.  As these rides are often operated in varied weather conditions such as coastal shore environments, the ravages of weather, sea spray, and salt air can corrode metal and may affect electrical components and safety.

    Can Operators of Carnival Rides be Charged Criminally if There is an Accident?

    Absolutely.  In Waterville, Maine, a series of carnival ride injuries resulted in criminal cahrges for the operators. The first rollercoaster accident involved a malfunction. The rollercoaster was known as the Dragon Wagon. The roller coaster malfunction injured three children. The ride was closed for a time due to its malfunction and it was assessed by investigators following the problems. Here, investigators believed that a coupling device malfunctioned allowing the parts of the rollercoaster train to separate before crashing into each other.

    The second accident occurred one day later when a woman fell from a seat on the Air Time swing ride on a Saturday afternoon. According to news reports and witness testimony from the time, the ride was in operation and in movement when the woman fell. The swing ride has bucket seats that are suspended from metal chains. Due to the centrifugal forces created when the ride spins, the seats acetate outwards and swing out. Reports from the time indicate that it appeared the accident was caused by rider error when she unbuckled the safety harness prematurely.

    Two charges were brought against individuals associated with the carnival and its operation. The first charge was brought against the ride supervisor for the Wagon Dragon, Arthur Gillette, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Mr. Gillette was fined $1,000 for what investigators from the fire marshal’s office described as he, “was attempting to repair or alter the physical condition of the ride before we were able to get there to investigate it.” This led to a charge of falsifying physical evidence, but no other charges in relation to the condition of the ride or its maintenance.

    The Second charge filed is the charge that was dismissed. This charge was brought against the owner of the company for a “failure to train” the mechanical swing ride operator. However, this charge was dismissed Thursday, March 17, 2016. While Sgt. Ken Grimes of the Office of the State Fire Marshal stated at the time that he believed that the operator of the ride was not properly trained, he opined that the reason for the dismissal was, “They are the prosecutors and the ones who certainly have to evaluate the evidence to see what kind of level of proof is needed for a particular charge based on information they’re supplied from our investigation.”

    How Carnivals Keep Operating After Accidents and Injuries

    A common defense after an amusement accident is for the carnival operator or park to argue that local inspectors found no flaws and tell jurors about the carnival or parks “unblemished” safety record and emphasize charitable relationships and the entertainment value brought to the community.

    Many times, the rides are operated by part-time summer help normally high school or college students.  In many cases, carnivals hire foreign exchange students with rudimentary English skills to work at or below minimum wages.  You can imagine that many of the young workers operating these rides have insufficient experience or training and often succumb to distractions such as chatting or texting on cell phones at the expense of safety checks or warnings.

    In almost every amusement park or carnival accident case that our firm has litigated, the defendant has asserted that the victim assumed the risk and the he or she recognized the dangers inherent in the activity.  Riders are imputed to understand that there are some risks involved in amusement parks.  However, this defense requires that the victim know about the injury causing defect and appreciate the resultant risk.  One cannot assume concealed risks or those of which he or she is unaware.  The risks must be known to fully comprehend or perfectly obvious to plaintiff.

    Some Examples of Horrific Injuries that Occurred on Carnival Rides

    When parents and relatives take their young children or nieces and nephews to a fair, carnival, or amusement park, they expect to be treated to a day of safe family fun. Unfortunately, these expectations may not comport with reality. Across the nation, children and adults are injured at fairs and carnivals. In some cases, the injuries occur due to poor ride design. In other cases, the injuries can be attributed to insufficient training provided to ride operators and staff. In still other cases, insufficient maintenance and frequent, rapid ride set-ups and disassembles play a role in inflicting severe, life-altering injuries.

    2 Children Fall From a Ferris Wheel and Sustain Critical Injuries

    North American Midway Entertainment, has confirmed through a press release that an incident occurred on the Century Wheel, or Ferris Wheel, on Thursday, August 21st, 2014. North American Midway states that while the exact cause of the incident is unclear, it was not due to a malfunction or undesired operation. The company claims that the ride was not damaged before or during the incident. Furthermore, the company has stated that the ride was inspected by state regulators following the accident and it was deemed safe to re-open for Friday.

    Authorities have advanced the idea that one the children’s crutches may have played a role in the accident. One eyewitness who discussed the accident with states that at about 8:20 p.m. he noticed that two Ferris wheel cabs had become caught on another. Initial reports state that the crutches may have become hooked or lodged on the other car. The eyewitness, Alex Keszler, said that as the wheel continues to rotate the car that the two children were in tipped forward. When the car reached the 4 o’clock position the Ferris wheel car tipped and dumped the children into the air. The two children fell about 15 feet before hitting the ground.

    Moments later onlookers found two siblings, a 16-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, on the ground near the base of the ride. The girl landed on the ride platform and, at first, was not moving. The boy fell on to the ground and was bleeding but conscious. Both children were rushed to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital where both children were listed as in critical but stable condition. As of Saturday afternoon, the boy had been released from the hospital but his sister was still being held for observation.

    A Girl Who Was Scalped on a Carnival Ride

    11-year-old Elizabeth Gilreath visited a Cinco de Mayo festival with family members. During her visit to the fair, she rode the King’s Crown ride. Unfortunately, during the course of the ride, the young girl slid forward in her seat and onto the floor. It is still not exactly clear as to why she slid forward in the seat, but possible explanations include:

    • The safety bar was not properly adjusted for a child of her size.
    • The safety bar was inadequate or malfunctioning.
    • The ride had other defects such as exposed gears and moving parts.

    In any case, not long after the ride began in motion, it became clear that something had gone very wrong. The young girl’s hair had become trapped in the spinning mechanism on the car she was riding in. As the ride continued to move and spin, her hair was being pulled further and further into the ride.

    Unfortunately, onlookers detailed the events and state that the ride operator likely took actions that prolonged the girl’s suffering and potentially allowed for more serious injuries to be inflicted. The father of the injured girl stated that the events carried on for about five to ten minutes before a concerned onlooker sprang into action. The reason the ride operated for such an extended amount of time with the girl’s hair trapped inside is because the ride operator ran from the scene of the accident. This was caught on surveillance footage and some have speculated that the operator ran to get help. However, it is not clear why the operator did not activate the emergency stop as an onlooker eventually did.

    One sad aspect of this story is that the parents revealed in an interview with a local news agency that they do not like carnival rides. They say that they do not trust the rides because of how quickly they are set-up and taken down. The parents say that they did not know that Elizabeth was going to the fair because she went to the carnival with her cousins. They only found out that she was going when Elizabeth called, apparently on the way to the fair.

    Contact One of Our Experienced Amusement Park Accident Attorneys

    If you have been injured in an amusement park accident, you may be able to obtain compensation for your injuries and other damages. Contact an experienced amusement park accident attorney, like the lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm, today. For your free and confidential consultation call us at (215) 709-6940 or contact us online.

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