Yet another lawsuit involving Disney has made its way through the court system. Last week, a Southern California jury ruled that while Disneyland had been negligent in evacuating Splash Mountain after a ride vehicle became stuck, a guest’s back injuries had not been caused by this negligence.
Stephen Wilson and his wife visited Disneyland in March 2010. He and his wife, with other friends, decided to ride Splash Mountain, an attraction Wilson had ridden over a hundred times. Unfortunately, the “log” (the ride vehicle) got stuck on a “sorter brake” just upstream of the third drop and the ride had to be evacuated.
Wilson is a big man, he stipulated that in March 2010, he was about 6’4″ and weighed 415 pounds and there is a hint that Wilson’s companions were not feather weights, either. In fact, Wilson alleged the log became stuck because cast members negligently overloaded the log. During this evacuation, Wilson claims, cast members negligently failed to secure the log and when Wilson stood up, the log dislodged, shot upward and forward, causing him to fall back and smash his lower back against the log seat top and severely aggravating a pre-existing back condition.
Disneyland maintained it was not negligent, arguing that it did not overload the log and that the manufacturer did not require tying off the log during an evacuation. Disneyland also argued that, during the evacuation, when the log started to move, the cast member instructed Wilson to sit down, which he did, using his hands to brace himself. The cast member denied Wilson lost his balance at all. Disneyland also argued that Wilson had a degenerative spine condition that was not exacerbated by his alleged fall. Disneyland called an expert witness who explained that Wilson had a long-standing history of degenerative disc disease and the evacuation did not cause or exacerbate Wilson’ s back problems. The expert believed Wilson’s condition could not have occurred overnight.
The jurors ultimately decided that Disneyland had been negligent but that Disneyland had not caused Wilson’s back injury. It isn’t clear why the jury reached this decision. Under California law, Wilson had to prove that Disneyland’s negligence was a “substantial factor” in causing his injuries. It appears the jury believed Disneyland could have evacuated Splash Mountain more safely but that, regardless, Wilson’s back problems were not caused by (or during) the evacuation. Their verdict might mean they didn’t believe Wilson had fallen at all, though this seems unlikely, given the finding that Disneyland had been negligent in the evacuation.
The jurors asked a number of questions over the three or four days they deliberated. Several questions asked about previous incidents where the log became stuck and whether there had been previous injuries. They also asked several questions about the log, including the height of the seat backs and whether there are hand rails on the logs. For the most part, the judge seems to have told the jurors they had to decide the case based upon the evidence presented.
The jury didn’t hear Disneyland argue that Wilson borrowed his grandmother’s “chair on wheels” when they went to Disneyland. According to Disneyland, Wilson brought the “chair on wheels” to Disneyland on the day he was injured to give the impression that he was disabled and thus facilitate his ease of entry to the ride through the exit queue. Wilson, Disneyland’s attorney’s argued, testified that he had brought the “chair on wheels” to Disneyland on at least 35 occasions prior to the accident, for the purpose of skipping the lines.” Ultimately, the judge found this information irrelevant, and, as it turned out, it is better the information was not admitted because it takes away a ground for Wilson to appeal.
Wilson has already said he will seek a new trial, but to do this, he will have to show the evidence was overwhelmingly in his favor or convince the trial court that a significant error occurred in the trial. It is most difficult to overturn a jury verdict.
I’m grateful that, in 2009, Corey Martin had the foresight to get photographs of Splash Mountain at Disneyland so I could use them in this blog post.