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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

Earlier this month, issues of privacy and safety were raised when a Los Angeles Superior Court officer fined Disneyland $7,050 for blocking efforts by Zipora Jacob, the woman who says she suffered a brain hemorrhage at the park, to obtain documents regarding injury and safety records.

Jacob's case began in July 1995 after she rode the Indiana Jones ride with her two children. When the ride was over, she staggered out, vomited and collapsed, her suit claims. She later underwent four surgeries to treat a subarachnoid hemorrhage that led doctors to implant a permanent shunt in her brain, she claims.

While such a hemorrhage can result from extreme shaking, Disney's Gomez said defense attorneys believe Jacob might have had a predisposition to such a medical problem.

Attorney Novack, who has won judgments against Levolor Inc. blinds and Evel Knievel, said Disney has been one of his most formidable opponents.

But he--and other attorneys who regularly sue Disney--still are surprised that Disney attempted to get the case dismissed by arguing that those who ride the park's thrill rides assume a risk of such an injury. Park-goers, Disney contended, assume an inherent risk similar to someone taking a white water rafting trip or going horseback riding.

In his response, Novack argued: "A mother who goes on a Disneyland ride with her children does not suspect, consider or even contemplate that going on the attraction is going to carry some inherent risk of injury."

The judge ruled in his favor, and the case is expected to reach trial this spring.

The volumes of court records compiled since the case was filed in July 1996 detail an often bitter battle over safety records, with Disney attorneys arguing at times that injury records didn't exist, only to have their availability verified by a Disney employee under oath, depositions filed in the case show.

Disney's attorney on the case, Stephen T. Waimey of the law firm Lewis, D'Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard, did not respond to telephone calls for comment.

Irvine attorney Elizabeth Livesay Fry said she encountered a similarly difficult battle against Disney before settling a case for $180,000 on the eve of trial in 1994.

Her client, Elizabeth Venema, was watching the preview of the new Fantasmic attraction in May 1992 when a cannon aboard the sailing ship Columbia fired near her, causing permanent damage to her auditory nerves. The cannon later was found to produce noises louder than levels that cause hearing damage and louder than Cal/OSHA allowed, according to sworn testimony and interviews. Two UCLA doctors hired by Disneyland confirmed Venema's hearing damage, the interviews show.

Disney offered a small sum to settle, Livesay Fry said. When Venema didn't accept, investigators for Disney's attorneys videotaped her around her town, on a trip to San Francisco and playing with her toddler daughter, said Venema and her husband, Steve, who demanded to view the tapes as part of their settlement with the park.

Disney attorneys also subpoenaed the records of the therapist Venema went to after her brother's death, Livesay Fry said, then argued that the emotional distress she claimed to have suffered because of the hearing damage was just as likely to have resulted from family problems she had as a child.

"They try to break you," Elizabeth Venema said. "They deposed my employees. They deposed every client I have. They even tracked down my past clients. My friends called me up and said they were asking questions like, 'Did you ever see her kiss her daughter on the lips?'

"It was very frightening."

But even trailing someone with a video camera is not uncommon, professor Gillers said. In Venema's case, he said, "they may have done it to show, despite what the experts say, she was still able to perform the tasks of daily life." Large corporations "also recognize that the plaintiff will find such investigations uncomfortable or invasive and might be willing to settle for less," he said.

Last Big Victory vs. Park Was in '86

Local attorneys also say they fight an uphill battle finding an impartial jury in Orange County, where most of the cases are tried. The park benefits from a "halo" effect, attorneys say, the goodwill bred from visitors' happy experiences at the Magic Kingdom.

Several lawyers said one attorney defending Disney plays to those memories, wearing a Mickey Mouse tie in front of the jury during cases.

James Eubanks said he and his girlfriend were on the Splash Mountain ride in September 1996 when the log jerked forward. Eubanks said he flung his hands out and caught his ring on a screw protruding from a hatch on the top of the flume ride. The force wrenched his finger off from above the socket.

After the accident a maintenance worker tightened the screw and the blood was cleaned up before photos of the accident site were taken, according to the depositions of employees and court testimony.

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