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Disneyland, Family Settle Suit Over 1998 Death

Estimate of the deal is at least $20 million for the Washington state tourist killed waiting to ride the tall ship Columbia.

October 05, 2000|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family of a tourist killed in a Christmas Eve, 1998, accident at Disneyland settled its claim against the park Wednesday, capping a case that focused the nation's attention on amusement park safety issues and spurred the state's first law regulating the industry.

Terms of the settlement were sealed. An outside expert previously estimated the damages could top $20 million.

Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez declined comment. The family's lawyer, Wylie Aitken, said only: "The matter has been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the family and the company."

The money will go to the family of Luan Phi Dawson, a 33-year-old Duvall, Wash., father and senior testing engineer at Microsoft Corp.

Dawson was killed and his wife injured after a metal cleat pulled free from the 84-foot tall ship Columbia as it docked. State investigators later said the worker in charge of docking the ship--one of the tamest rides in the park--had been poorly trained. She also was severely injured.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 6, 2000 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Disneyland settlement--Headlines Thursday incorrectly stated that a lawsuit had been filed in a fatal 1998 accident at Disneyland. The case was settled without a lawsuit.

Dawson's wife, Lieu Thuy Vuong, now 45, suffered severe facial injuries in the accident and faces more plastic surgery. The couple's 7-year-old son, Antoine, and her 9-year-old grandson, Andrew, were at their side when the accident occurred.

Newport Beach attorney Jeffrey T. Roberts, a wrongful-death specialist, has estimated that any settlement would be $20 million to $25 million because Disneyland was clearly at fault.

The injured employee, Christine Carpenter, also faces more reconstructive surgery for a severely injured foot, a co-worker said. Carpenter is working from home for Disney, but has been unable to return to the park itself.

The incident was one of a series of high-profile amusement park accidents that focused public attention on the industry.

In the Columbia accident, Disneyland and the Anaheim Police Department came under heavy criticism--the park for cleaning up the accident scene too quickly and the police for a 4 1/2-hour delay in reaching the scene. The park later agreed to leave accident scenes undisturbed until investigators arrive, and police set up a permanent station at the park.

After a lengthy investigation, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Disneyland $12,500, the maximum penalty allowed, for misusing equipment and failing to train Carpenter.

A Disneyland ride-procedure expert who asked not to be named said Carpenter received a brief "overview" training on the Mark Twain, a steamboat that also cruises Disneyland's Rivers of America area. But the Columbia was not in use the day she was trained and she never received any hands-on training on the tall ship, the expert said.

State officials said bolts holding the cleat had been bent before the accident, showing that the ship had been docked improperly on previous occasions. At the insistence of Disney's lawyers, the state agency changed the final language of the citation to read that Carpenter had been given inadequate training rather than no training on the attraction.

Disneyland later made several changes in the way it operates rides, adopting bell signals and changing docking procedures on the Columbia, reviewing and updating all its ride procedures and bringing back lead ride operators on most rides, an experienced position that had been phased out on many attractions.

A trial would have focused attention on employees' claims after the accident that the theme park, to cut costs, had trimmed staff and reduced maintenance in ways that could have created hazards. Disneyland denied those allegations.

Dawson was the ninth person, including visitors and employees, fatally injured at Disneyland since it opened in 1955, according to "Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look At Disneyland," a book by David Koenig.

The accident also caused Kathy Fackler, whose son David was maimed while riding a Disneyland roller-coaster nine months before the Dawson accident, to take a lead role in pressing for state regulation of amusement parks.

Dawson's death "brought me out of the closet," said Fackler, who also reached a confidential settlement with the park in her son's case.

The new state law is getting its first major test now as workplace safety officials investigate a recent accident on Disneyland's Roger Rabbit ride, where a 4-year-old boy slipped out a cutaway opening and was crushed. He remains in critical condition.

"The only good thing that came out of that tragedy is we would not have this law in California otherwise," she said. "And without that law, we wouldn't know what had happened on the Roger Rabbit ride."

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