Major Settlement Reached with Disney in the Sailing Ship “Columbia” Incident

The Law Offices of Wylie Aitken and Disney reached an agreement for settlement in a wrongful death matter of a 34 year old Microsoft Computer Programmer who was struck by a metal cleat which detached from a signature Disney ride “the Sailing Ship Columbia”.  His wife was also struck by the metal cleat and she suffered severe facial injuries.  The firm was proud to represent the young widow, her son, grandson and two adult children.  This settlement capped a case that focused the nation’s attention on amusement park safety issues and spurred California’s first law regulating the industry.  At the time of settlement, the Microsoft Programmers projected wage loss exceeded 8 million dollars (not including the substantial medical damages.)  Terms of the settlement remain confidential.

The “Columbia” incident sparked a national debate over the safety of our theme parks.  Particularly, in California, legislation was enacted  specifically designed to ensure independent inspection of theme parks, such as Disneyland.  The legislation, which provided mandatory inspection by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”)  has received an early test in three recent incidents at Disneyland including two workers falling from scaffolding at the Disney California Adventure (who are represented by our office) , various individuals hurt on Space Mountain and a young boy suffering brain injury from the Roger Rabbit Ride.  The Columbia incident also changed police response to accidents in Disneyland following the 4 ½ hour delay by the Anaheim Police to investigating the Columbia tragedy.  The Anaheim Police Department has since placed a full time officer at Disneyland.

Failures at Disneyland

Aggressive investigation determined that the Columbia incident was caused by a variety of Disney failures.  First, the Columbia Incident was caused by Disney’s failure to train its employees on the proper docking of the Columbia.  The “dockhand”, an assistant manager whose responsibility it was to secure the Columbia, had not trained on the docking procedures prior to the incident.   However, expert testimony established that the skill required for judging the incoming speed of the Columbia is gained by experience only.  (The enormity of the forces involved during the operation of the ship is not realized until someone has been at the helm during its operation.)  Disney also did not require its assistant managers to be as well trained as other ride operators, even though these managers often had to fill-in/rewrite when other employees were sick or on vacation. In fact, OSHA determined that because of the lack of training was part of training policy, Disney management should have known of its inadequacy.

Second, the Columbia was not properly maintained  prior to the incident.  Investigation established that the subject cleat was not properly secured and that “wood rot” also contributed to the incident. Documents obtained from former Disney workers and interviews of Disney employees by OSHA established that Disney ignored various maintenance requests on the Columbia.

Third, expert witnesses contended that Disney used an improper rope to dock the Columbia.  Authentic “hemp” rope was originally used; but hemp was replaced by nylon rope for economic reasons.  It was the great strength of the nylon rope that created a “rubber band” effect which contributed to the cleat being launched into an unsuspecting crowd.

Theme Park Safety and Emphasizing the Importance of Tort Law in Public Safety Issues

Due to the Columbia incident, Disneyland later made several changes in the way it operates rides, adopting bell signals, changing docking procedures on the Columbia, and reviewing/ updating all its ride procedures.  Due to the incident, Disney also brought back lead ride operators on most rides, an experienced position that had been phased out on many attractions including the Columbia, as well as the aforementioned police procedure changes.

The incident caused Kathy Fackler, whose son David was severely injured while riding “Thunder Mountain” at Disneyland, to take a lead role in pressing for state regulation of amusement parks.  The Columbia incident “brought me out of the closet, said Kathy Fackler.  Fackler has also set up a web site entitled to help ensure park safety.  The new state law that resulted from the Columbia is now getting its first major test now as workplace safety officials investigate two recent accidents.  In one accident, two workers were seriously injured at Disney California Adventure while working on the Grand Californian Hotel.  In another accident, a boy was seriously injured while riding the Roger Rabbit ride.