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Family, Disney Settle Suit Over Ride Death

Jury selection was to begin in three days in the case of a Gardena man killed in 2003 on Big Thunder Mountain. Terms aren't disclosed.

December 03, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

The family of a man who was killed in 2003 when a wheel assembly fell off a locomotive on Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and caused it to crash settled a lawsuit Friday against the Walt Disney Co. for an undisclosed sum.

While the settlement's terms are confidential, Marcelo Torres' parents said they were giving $500,000 of it to Brooks College in Long Beach to provide scholarships to aspiring animators. Their 22-year-old son was a graphic artist.

"There is no money possible to pay for his life -- ever -- but that is the only remedy the law can provide," Jaime and Carmen Torres of Gardena said in a statement. "Now that this exhausting emotional process has finally concluded and we have our answers, we will hopefully have some closure."

The settlement was announced three days before jury selection was to begin in Orange County Superior Court.

In 2002, Disney similarly handled its last lawsuit over a ride accident: It was settled three days before trial, and the terms were never disclosed. In that case, a boy suffered irreversible brain damage on Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin in September 2000.

But unlike that case, Disney accepted responsibility for the Big Thunder Mountain accident that killed Torres and injured 10 others.

"We all deeply regret that the tragic accident occurred and are terribly saddened by the grievous pain this caused the Torres family," Disneyland spokesman Rob Doughty said Friday.

A report by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health that was released two months after the accident faulted park maintenance workers, ride operators and a mechanic.

Disney officials, though, have denied the Torreses' attorney's contention that the faulty maintenance was part of a larger safety problem brought on by budget cuts at the Anaheim amusement park.

"This was not just one mechanic making a mistake," said Wylie A. Aitken, who represented the Torres family. "This was really systemic to how they were running the park."

The crash occurred when two bolts on the locomotive's left guide wheel assembly fell off, causing an axle to jam into the railroad's ties. The locomotive nose-dived, and its rear hit the top of a tunnel. The force snapped a tow bar connecting the locomotive to the lead passenger car, which slammed into the locomotive's undercarriage.

Torres was sitting in the lead passenger car.

State inspectors faulted a mechanic who didn't tighten bolts and attach a safety wire on the wheel assembly that fell off. They also blamed a manager who declared the ride safe without inspecting it, and chastised Disneyland's maintenance guidelines for allowing workers to sign for procedures done by others.

Inspectors also noted that operators who heard clanking at least 30 minutes before the accident kept the coaster running for 12 more rides before deciding to remove it from the track after one more run. The train crashed on the 13th ride.

Torres and his best friend and graphic-design business partner, Vicente Gutierrez, had spontaneously decided to visit the park that day with two out-of-state friends. Gutierrez broke his collarbone, nose and ribs. His lawsuit against Disney has also been settled for an undisclosed sum, Aitken said.

After the crash, the state ordered Disneyland to retrain ride maintenance workers, managers and ride operators; to require a test run of all cars on Big Thunder Mountain before passengers are loaded; and to require that those who perform maintenance on rides be the ones who sign that the work was completed.

The Big Thunder Mountain crash was one of three major accidents during a five-year period at Disneyland in which ride maintenance arose as an issue. A patron was killed in 1998 when he was hit by an iron cleat that a taut rope tore from the Columbia sailing ship. Two years later, nine passengers were injured on Space Mountain when a bolt broke on a wheel assembly.

In 1997, Disneyland moved to a system of "reliability-centered maintenance," which relies on repair histories and failure rates -- rather than the intuition of experienced workers -- to determine how often a safety procedure needs to be performed.

A consultant hired by the park to plan the change estimated that Disneyland would save millions of dollars in maintenance costs. But longtime workers said that staffing and maintenance procedures were pared back and that redundancies that provided an extra margin of safety were eliminated. Numerous veteran ride mechanics and supervisors were laid off, fired or retired.

In 1999, Kathy Fackler -- whose son, David, had his foot mangled in a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad accident -- worked for the passage of a law to require inspections of permanent amusement park rides and the mandatory reporting of serious injury accidents.

Since then, amusement park accidents have been investigated by the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Aitken acknowledged improvements in Disney maintenance since Torres' death, as well as growing support for national legislation governing theme park safety.

Disneyland has retrained machinists, maintenance workers and managers, he said, and a month after the accident instructed ride operators on what to do when an attraction behaved oddly -- steps that pleased the Torres family.

"Marcelo's parents didn't want things to go right back to business as usual," Aitken said. "If their son had to die, they wanted his life to at least make someone safer in the future."

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