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Slow Response to Disneyland Ride Accident Alleged

Courts: Suit says the theme park tried to conceal the seriousness of the injuries a Utah couple suffered on Space Mountain. The company denies their claims.

July 31, 2001|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Utah couple filed a lawsuit Monday against Disneyland over a derailment on the Space Mountain roller coaster, alleging that park employees tried to conceal the seriousness of the accident from investigators.

Disneyland's alleged response to the accident a year ago today is a major element of the lawsuit filed by Jonathan and Julie Woodcock, who contend that the park may have delayed medical help and either failed to report the accident or mischaracterized its seriousness to the Department of Occupational Safety and Health, the state agency that investigates amusement-park accidents.

"[Julie Woodcock] was there to celebrate her 40th birthday and they left in an ambulance," said the Woodcocks' attorney, Ryan Saba, with the Beverly Hills law offices of James R. Rosen. "That's just not right."

Nine people were sent to the hospital, with injuries ranging from cuts to neck and back injuries, after a wheel assembly broke from a ride car, causing a sudden emergency stop. The car buckled and derailed, according to the lawsuit, and several people were suspended on a track 40 feet in the air for as long as 45 minutes before being rescued.

The accident--and subsequent response by Disneyland, local authorities and state inspectors--highlights issues that are still being worked out in the state law regulating amusement parks. The law took effect last year, but regulations for enforcing it are still being drafted.

Although Disneyland reported the accident and an inspector visited the scene, the state never launched a full investigation, saying it was satisfied that Disneyland was fixing the problem.

State officials said Monday that if the same accident occurred today, the response would be different and a full investigation would be likely. They have no record of the inspection, who reported the accident or how it was reported, or Disneyland's follow-up repairs.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, also alleges negligence and infliction of emotional distress, among other claims. The Woodcocks seek a jury trial and unspecified damages.

Jonathan Woodcock suffered 13 bulging disks, nerve damage from the base of his neck to the bottom of his spine, a dislocated jaw, cracked teeth, a ripped rotator cuff and joint disorder, according to the suit. He continues to suffer chronic pain, Saba said. His wife suffered a collapsed arch; permanent damage to a knee, hip and shoulder; and two herniated disks, the suit says.

Disneyland officials declined to comment on the suit, but said their response was appropriate. They also said they reported the problem to state officials even though they were not yet required to do so.

At the time of the accident, an Anaheim fire captain criticized the theme park in his report, noting that Disneyland employees tried to keep the incident "as stealthy as possible" by not revealing the scope of the accident and injuries. Firefighters also said they overheard security officers congratulating each other for keeping detailed information off emergency radios.

"It is my opinion that this lack of information caused significant delays in our ability to properly assess the entire scene and appropriate the proper resources," Fire Capt. Scott Roberts wrote.

Authorities raised their concerns with Disneyland, and Anaheim Deputy City Manager Tom Wood said Monday that the working relationship between the Fire Department and Disney is "very good." The report reflects the opinion of one individual, he said.

But the Woodcocks' attorney said he plans to investigate Disneyland's response. Any delay could have affected their injuries, he said.

State officials said Monday they were notified about the accident at the time and sent an inspector to the park. But, they do not know what caused the derailment or what repair work was done.

"There was no investigation into it on the order of what we would do now if we received such a report," said Len Welsh, the state agency's special counsel. "We hadn't worked out how to do it back then."

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