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Plaintiffs Suing Disney In for a Rough Ride

Law: Corporation's strategy is criticized by some who sue over injuries. Firm says it fights cases it views as frivolous.

January 31, 1999|TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eleven-year-old Inderjit Dosanjh flew out of Disneyland's Tea Cup ride, fractured a vertebra and ended up in a body cast for four months. Though a jury decided the theme park was not at fault, an angry Orange County Superior Court judge called the verdict a "miscarriage of justice." He accused Disney's attorneys of hiding a key witness and improperly influencing the jury and granted the boy a new trial.

Disneyland prides itself on being the Happiest Place on Earth and one of the safest--and for millions of visitors each year, it is. But some who have gotten hurt at the fabled park and sought redress for their injuries have found themselves battling an aggressive and well-financed corporate giant whose legal tactics, while not uncommon, sometimes contrast sharply with its public image.

In one case, a juror complained first to the judge and then to Disneyland officials that the deliberations were tainted because of pro-Disneyland sentiment among jurors. Plaintiffs' attorneys say the attitude is common in Orange County.

In other cases, court documents show, Disney has investigated the intimate details of plaintiffs' personal lives and brought them into the public record, concealed evidence and kept records of injuries at the park secret. Its legal strategies prompted one judge recently to sanction the company and another, in the Tea Cup case, to accuse it in writing of misconduct.

Disney attorneys would not discuss their overall litigation strategy, so it is difficult to know the extent of such practices by the park, which has been sued more than 150 times over the past five years.

But a Times review of a number of recent, hard-fought cases, while not a definitive compilation of Disney litigation, provides a glimpse into a side of the amusement park company that few are aware of.

Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez said that when a complaint has merit, the Walt Disney Co. often settles the case. But the company will "very assertively" fight cases it views as frivolous, he said.

"Large companies like Disney are perceived to have deep pockets and we're obviously sued on frivolous grounds fairly frequently," he said. "When that occurs, we defend ourselves vigorously."

People who have sued the park can attest to its aggressive posture.

In addition to the case involving the 11-year-old boy, there are these:

* A 36-year-old woman who said she suffered permanent hearing damage at the park was followed and videotaped by investigators working for Disney, which also questioned the parents of children in the day-care center she ran and subpoenaed her therapist's records, according to records and interviews.

* A 17-year-old whose finger was ripped from his hand on Splash Mountain later found that Disneyland workers had cleaned up the scene and tightened the screw that had snagged his ring before accident photos were taken, court records and testimony show.

* A 43-year-old woman who sued after she suffered a brain hemorrhage while on the Indiana Jones Adventure was informed in court papers that she assumed the risk of injury when she rode the attraction.

"I was shocked," said Barry Novack, the woman's attorney. "I said, 'Are you telling the public that getting a brain bleed is an inherent risk of riding Indiana Jones?"

Some legal experts and analysts say Disney must employ tough tactics to protect itself and its reputation in a litigious society. Being tough makes people think twice about suing Disney because it will be so costly, time-consuming, and unpleasant, experts say.

"The message they're sending is to the plaintiffs bar in Orange County," said legal ethics professor Stephen Gillers of New York University. The message, he said: "'We'd rather spend seven figures than pay you five."'

"It's standard," Gillers said, "for many large companies to make the price of an aggressive lawsuit against them too high as a way of discouraging the plaintiff. They have to be tough, even in cases where they're most vulnerable, to get a reputation for not being soft."

'They Try to Break You,' Plaintiff Says

The issue of safety at the park and Disney's efforts to protect its image came into sharp focus Christmas Eve, when a worker attempted to tie up the sailing ship Columbia to a dock. A cleat--a metal piece with prongs for attaching a rope--broke free from the ship and flew into a group of tourists, killing a Washington man and injuring his wife and a dock worker.

Disney officials came under criticism for cleaning up the scene and boxing up evidence before police or investigators for the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration could arrive. Though the coroner has ruled the incident an accident, Cal/OSHA is probing whether Disneyland was misusing the cleat and whether it had adequately trained the worker. On Wednesday, Disneyland's new operations chief said the park is launching a ride-by-ride review of how all its attractions are run, and already is changing procedures for the Columbia.

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