In a rare thrill-ride personal injury lawsuit that has made it to trial, Walt Disney World is in court this week defending the safety record of one of its most popular attractions.
An Orange County jury heard opening arguments Wednesday in a case pitting Disney against Marvin Cohen, a now-80-year-old Pennsylvania man who suffered a stroke twelve years ago after riding the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, at the theme park now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Cohen’s lawyers intend to show he was a physically active housing developer who suffered a tear in an artery leading to his brain while riding Tower of Terror with his family on March 28, 1998. That, they say, caused a debilitating stroke a few weeks later.
What makes the case particularly unusual is that Cohen’s lawyers are not arguing that something went wrong with Tower of Terror, such as equipment failure or operational malfunction. Rather, the ride itself — simulating an out-of-control elevator in a creepy hotel — is on trial.
Last year, the Orlando Sentinel reviewed hundreds of personal injury cases filed against Central Florida theme parks since the start of 2004, including Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens, and found 26 other cases claiming properly-functioning rides caused injuries. Most of them were settled or dismissed. None went to trial.
Cohen’s lawyers intend to present evidence that the Tower of Terror, which features a succession of drops and ascents, creates a whiplash effect that can seriously injure even healthy riders.
“This case is about the placement of show or entertainment over safety,” Cohen’s lead attorney, Barry Novack, told jurors.
Cohen’s suit accuses Disney of multiple shortfalls with Tower of Terror, including ignoring recommendations from its own safety experts when building the attraction and failing to provide appropriate warnings to guests about the safety risks.
Disney’s lead attorney, Ron Cabaniss of Cabaniss Smith Toole & Wiggins, outlined a multi-part defense for the jury Wednesday. First, Cabaniss said, evidence will show the ride is safe, carefully planned, tested and monitored, and well within safety standards. And it exerts far less speed or force on a body than people believe; high speeds and forceful drops are largely illusions, enhanced by special effects.
Second, Cohen had plenty of warnings to understand what the ride was like before he boarded. And, Cabaniss said, Disney’s evidence will show that Cohen had other medical problems, and his stroke — suffered 23 days after the ride — was caused by factors other than the attraction.
“It is a fun, safe ride for the entire family, no matter young or old,” Cabaniss said of Tower of Terror. “If you can withstand the forces of daily activities from going over speed bumps or potholes … you won’t be harmed by this ride, unless you’ve got some sort of perhaps pre-existing condition.”
As the sides outlined their cases in opening arguments, they indicated the jury is likely to get a close look at how Disney planned Tower of Terror and how it works. The attraction’s designers and independent ride consultants are among witnesses expected to testify. Cohen’s life and medical history also likely will be dissected, as Cabaniss and his team seek to explore alternative causes for his stroke.
Novack has led a number of ride-injury lawsuits against theme parks over the years. The Beverly Hills, Calif., lawyer has also won high-profile victories over Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., including a 2005 decision that forced theme parks in California to abide by a higher standard of care when providing for guest safety.
This is not the only lawsuit alleging strokes caused by Tower of Terror, which opened in 1994, but it is the only one to reach trial. Novack has another case, alleging a British teenager suffered a stroke after riding in 2005. And a Pennsylvania man claims that his wife’s 2001 stroke was caused by either Tower of Terror or another thrill ride, Rock-n-Roller-Coaster. Both of those cases are pending.