Amusement Law: As the Summer Season Winds Down’

Here in the States, August means that the peak summer amusement park season is beginning to wind down since many states now start their school years well ahead of the Labor Day weekend (though efforts continue to reverse that trend and return school starts to their traditional post-Labor Day spot). With amusement park facilities hopefully wrapping up a successful season, this weeka��s Update focuses on a series of quick legal and business notes facing the industry these days.

Let’s take a look…

•    The judge in the Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom lawsuit has allowed two new plaintiffs to join the matter while nixing attempts by several others:

Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Barry Willett ruled Friday that Blair Johnson and Arin Valsted, both of Louisville, may join the case filed by the parents of 14-year-old Kaitlyn Lasitter.

The Courier-Journal reported on its web site that Willett denied a request from the parents of the two teens to join the suit in connection with the accident June 21, 2007.

The parents were seeking damages for emotional distress and travel expenses for providing for their children’s care. But Willett said state law does not allow the parents to sue in this case.

He also scheduled the trial for January 2010.

•    Meanwhile, Disney reported solid earningspartly on the strength of its theme park division.  Certainly good news in these tough economic times.  But, not long after, Disney did something curious:  it raised Disney World ticket prices (for the first time reaching $75 for a single day, adult ticket).  Then again, at least one blog is reporting that an early August ticket raise is actually a new trend at Disney’s Florida resort.  All in all, the Motley Fool thinks this whole thing equates to “a mixed bag”.

•    Too often, after a violent incident inside an amusement park, facilities are slow to react—either out of being unprepared or concerned that doing so might appear to imply that their policies were deficient in the first place.  Not so in one recent case.  Valleyfair made a smart move in response to an in-park assault:

ValleyFair has beefed up security inside the Shakopee Amusement Park since a beating incident after the July 4th midnight closing. The park management has beefed up security inside the park. Park officials say that includes more security personnel patrolling and new "no tolerance" policy.

Previously first offenders of park decorum would be given a warning. Now, anyone engaging in any physical infraction faces immediate banning from the park. There have been no such violent incidents reported at ValleyFair since the July 4th attacks.

•    Next up is an interesting regulatory situation developed in the Northeast.  Last winter, Six Flags apparently commenced construction on a new Batman-themed, indoor roller-coaster before obtaining all the required municipal permits.  This led a local building official to issue a stop work order.  Ultimately, the regulatory process became so jumbled that work on the coaster was suspended for this season—a major problem as it turns out that this summer’s Batman/Dark Knight movie has been a record-breaking success.

Now, the local mayor in Agawam, Massachusetts—home base for Six Flags’ New England park—is working with the governor to streamline the regulatory process to avoid this type of mess again:

The coaster project was scrapped in April after state and local permitting delays. Six Flags has acknowledged it bears some responsibility as well. Building Inspector Dominic Urbinati issued a stop-work order on the project on Feb. 20, saying that the park had begun significant construction without a building permit. Without proper construction documents, he said, there was no way he could ensure that the project met state building and safety codes.

In addition to local boards, the permitting reviews included one from the state Department of Public Safety to approve the project’s plans for emergency exits and a fire suppression sprinkler system.

[The Mayor] wants the state to streamline the permit process on future projects. A spokesman for the governor’s office said the state would work hard to prevent any business from leaving Massachusetts.

•    Six Flags also made the news recently when a Missouri appeals court ruled in its favor:

Neither Six Flags nor the city of Eureka can be held liable for an accident that killed five family members eight years ago.

The Vonder Haars, visiting from Breese, Ill., were on their way to Six Flags St. Louis on the morning of July 31, 2000, when their vehicle hit a car that had stopped in front of them in a traffic jam about a mile before the park exit. The family car then crossed into the left lanes of Interstate 44 and was hit by a tractor-trailer.

Again and again, the court returned to a few basic facts: The accident occurred on a federal highway maintained by MoDOT that Six Flags had no control over. MoDOT’s exclusive control of the highway also relieved the city of liability.

•    On the federal regulatory side of things, Stephanie Thienel with IAAPA has posted an update on recent ADA happenings and an important public comment period that ends soon:

Having the hearing under our belts, we are now working on the written public comments, which we will submit to the Department of Justice before the Aug. 17 deadline. We hope IAAPA members will take time to review the proposed regulations and submit comments both to IAAPA and DOJ.

•    A new lawsuit was recently filed in Utah related to an incident involving a climbing wall:

Lara Willey says she was rappelling a climbing wall on Nov. 18, 2006, at Boondocks Fun Center, Inc., when the apparatus supporting her broke, causing her to free-fall about 30 feet to a concrete floor below, according to documents filed this week in 3rd District Court.

Willey, who was 18 at the time, broke her neck, back and pelvis in several places, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims Boondocks Fun Center provided unsafe equipment on the climbing wall. It also claims Mine Safety Appliances Co., of Pennsylvania, and Select Development and Contracting, of Arizona, is liable for manufacturing and for installing the climbing-wall equipment.

•    Finally, a sad note that warrants reporting:  Harriet Burns—Disney’s first female Imagineering designer—recently passed away.  Skilled.  Well-respected.  A trailblazer in several ways.  Ms. Burns will be missed by many.

That’s all for now.  See you next week with another Update…