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Water-Slide Victim's Family Settles Suit for $1.7 Million

Amusement parks: Girl died after attraction collapsed in Concord, Calif. Disneyland case is still pending.

May 13, 2000|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case that helped trigger regulation of California amusement parks, the family of a 17-year-old girl who died in a 1997 water-slide collapse has tentatively settled a negligence lawsuit for $1.7 million.

In the agreement, a copy of which was obtained Friday by The Times, none of the defendants admitted liability.

The defendants include Waterworld USA in Concord, Calif., and its parent company, Premier Parks Inc.; slide maker Whitewater West Industries, and the Napa Valley Unified School District.

The school district was accused of encouraging students to overload the slide as part of an annual year-end ritual. The crowded slide ripped apart 37 feet above the ground, killing Quimby Ghilotti, 17, and injuring 32 other students.

The defendants had contended the students' behavior caused the accident, although the plaintiffs said the warnings and safety systems in place were inadequate. As part of the settlement, the school district and Premier expressed their sympathies for the family and acknowledged that the girl never intended to harm herself or anyone else.

The Waterworld accident was the first of a series of high-profile mishaps at parks throughout California and across the country. One, a Christmas Eve, 1998, accident at Disneyland, killed a tourist when a metal mooring cleat tore loose from a tall-ship ride at the dock and flew into a crowd waiting to board the ship.

Attorney Jeffrey T. Roberts, a wrongful death specialist in Newport Beach, said the Concord settlement seemed low, perhaps reflecting the difficulty in apportioning blame among the parties.

He estimated the Disneyland case could settle for $20 million to $25 million because investigators blamed the park for misusing equipment and inadequately training an employee involved. In addition, the man who died was a young employee of Microsoft Corp. with a family to support.

"There's pure liability [of Disneyland] in the case--and a staggering loss of earnings," Roberts said.

Settlement negotiations have been pending between the man's family and Disneyland, sources close to the case said.

In the aftermath of the series of accidents--and despite considerable opposition from the industry--state legislators passed a law mandating state inspections of California amusement parks and requiring parks to report accidents that result in more than first-aid treatment.

State regulators are creating final rules that will implement the law, and Ghilotti's mother, Victoria Nelson, has become a crusader for strong rules.

Nelson met Friday in Sacramento with officials of the Division of Occupational Safety, insisting the rules not be watered down to please the parks. She and other consumer activists, for example, want park accidents reported to the state if they require a visit to a doctor. Park lobbyists have pressed for reports to be filed only when 24-hour hospitalization is required.

Nelson said after her meeting that she was afraid the parks would try to sneak an amendment through the state legislature to weaken the law's accident reporting requirements, provisions for inspections and fines.

"Nothing is going to get sneaked by without me raising a big, big, big stink," Nelson said. "I am watching everybody, and I am not alone in watching. And I'm not going to go away."

She said she will turn her attention next to a pending federal bill that would give the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regulatory power over the amusement industry nationally.

Kathy Fackler, another activist who met with the state regulators this week, said she was encouraged and hopes agreement can be reached with the industry. Fackler became a lobbyist for accident-reporting after her son's foot was severely injured in a Disneyland roller coaster accident, a mishap that went unmentioned by the media when it happened.

"I feel reassured that in the end, visits to doctors will be reportable," said Fackler, who is to testify before a House panel in Washington, D.C., next week regarding the proposed federal law. "If we went along with the industry plan, they wouldn't be reporting broken bones, concussions and other serious injuries."

The parks contend that the Concord accident illustrates the need for a "rider responsibility" law obliging park patrons to obey posted warnings. Park officials were unsuccessful in including such a provision when the new state regulations were adopted last fall, but have suggested they may seek to amend the law.

Attorneys in the Concord case said the settlement agreement is being circulated among the parties for signature. It sets a June 23 deadline for payment of the $1.7 million to Nelson and her former husband, Larry Ghilotti.

Altogether, 24 lawsuits were filed by victims of the water-slide collapse. Fourteen victims reached a $4-million settlement in November, and the remaining cases have settlements pending, said Thomas Beatty, an attorney for the Napa schools.

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