The ruling, released Thursday, was a victory for the family of a 23-year-old Spanish woman who suffered a fatal brain injury aboard the Indiana Jones ride during her 2000 honeymoon at Disneyland in southern California.
The court said the family could sue Walt Disney Co. under a state law usually applied to transportation companies. Disney declined to comment on the ruling. The case now returns to Los Angeles Superior Court for trial.
The decision comes days after a 4-year-old boy died of unknown causes after riding Disney’s Mission: Space ride at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. No cause of death has been identified.
The California court ruled that Walt Disney Co. was required to provide vehicles that are “safe and fit for the purposes to which they are put.”
Cristina Moreno suffered a brain aneurysm as a result of “violent shaking and stress” she experienced on the ride, her family’s lawyer, Barry Novak said. She died in Spain about two months later.
Rob Doughty, vice president for communications at Disneyland resort, commented on the decision: “While we disagree with the decision, it has nothing to do with the safety of our parks. Our commitment to guest safety has been, and continues to be, unwavering.”
Novak, who has litigated several brain trauma cases against Disney and other parks, said the opinion means that theme parks “must warn the public that the rides can cause serious injury and even death to people without pre-existing conditions.”
Disney argued it has no liability as a transportation provider because its passengers are seeking thrills and pleasure, not trying to reach a destination.
But the court responded in its 4-3 decision: “Certainly there is no justification for imposing a lesser duty of care on the operators of roller coasters simply because the primary purpose of the transportation provided is entertainment … The rider expects to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt.”
Disney recently prevailed in a safety-related issue in a lawsuit with a ride manufacturer over Mission: Space.
Environmental Tectonics Corp. of Pennsylvania, which designed and built Mission: Space, claimed in a 2003 lawsuit that its engineers had been banned from safety tests and wanted to be relieved of liability in the event of an accident.
A federal judge in Philadelphia dismissed the safety claim from ETC’s lawsuit Monday, the same day the 4-year-old boy passed out and died after riding Mission: Space.
An autopsy found no trauma but was inconclusive about the cause of death. Further test results are expected in about a month.
A lawyer for ETC would not comment on whether the company would try to reinstate the safety claims. The case, which includes cross claims by Disney about time and cost overruns on the ride, is scheduled for trial in September.
ETC was “enormously saddened” to hear of the child’s death but made no other comment about the accident or litigation in a written statement released Thursday.
The boy’s death has renewed calls by California-based consumer group Saferparks for federal oversight of theme parks, which are exempted in Florida and other states from ride regulation and inspection laws that govern mobile carnivals.
Data provided by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions shows 3,900 injuries nationwide in 2003 and an average of two fatalities from 315 million visits made each year to theme parks.
Read more about the child who died