On the Friday night of last year’s Florida Seafood Festival, at about 8:45 p.m., Daniel Hunter’s two sons, Zebediah and Evan, were aboard the Sizzler, a popular amusement park attraction, together with 13 other riders, when something went terribly wrong.
In an instant, an equipment malfunction caused one of the ride’s three lower sweeps, which whirl around a central mast about every five seconds, each carrying four bucket cars that are rotating even faster, to touch the ground. The sweep and the carrier assembly hit the trailer upon which the ride was mounted.
“The whole contraption drops down to the ground as it’s spinning,” said Mark Nonni, the Tallahassee attorney representing the Hunters. “The pole dug down in the dirt.”
The sudden disturbance affected all 15 passengers, as well as a 16th person, the mother of two children on the rides, who injured her ankle when she jumped the fence to attend to her two kids.
All the riders were shaken up by what happened.
One local man said he heard a squeaking sound, and watched as his son’s carrier bucket fell to the ground. The boy was treated for a busted lip and cracked tooth, after his mouth hit the lap bar.
Another couple, who said they smelled pot as they rushed to see what happened, said their 5 and 7-year old children were later checked for concussions and a sprained ankle.
Two adults on the ride at the time said they were treated for pain in their knees, back and neck.
According to the interviews with riders contained in the bureau report, only the Hunters suffered serious injury.
“There were injuries to both kids’ lower legs. Their legs get caught up in between the metal,” said Nonni.
Evan was lifelighted to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital for a compound fracture to his lower leg. “His was by far the most severe injury,” said his attorney. “Emergency surgery had to put rods and metal to fix his leg, and he’s had extensive physical therapy.”
The mishap drew statewide attention to the festival, as well as state inspectors to Apalachicola to re-examine the ride Saturday morning that they had signed off on two days earlier in their pre-festival inspections. The Sizzler was closed down for the remainder of the festival, the other rides all okayed, and the amusement park portion of the festival continued on without a hitch.
Also, to no one’s surprise, the Hunters, who are from Quincy, turned to a lawyer, and as it stands now the case has been set by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis for trial in June 2018.
What went wrong and what's at stake?
In his suit, Nonni named as defendants the Sizzler’s owners, Fun for Everyone Inc., out of Brandon, as well as Modern Midways, out of Steger, Illinois, a carnival provider with a national reach that, as if often the case, subcontracts with individual ride owners to augment its amusement park offerings. In addition, as a third insured party, Nonni named the Florida Seafood Festival as a defendant.
Representing the defendants on behalf of the insurance company is Pensacola attorney Linda Wade, the only female board certified trial attorney in West Florida, and among the fewer than 2 percent of lawyers in Florida who are civil trial board certified.
Wade said the Hunters’ is the only lawsuit to emerge from the mishap, although she noted several others on the ride at the time have made inquiries with the insurer.
“Some of the other children were checked out at emergency rooms and we’ve reached out to them and are working towards a resolution,” she said. “All but Mr. Hunter, the one with the fractured leg, were treated, examined and released.”
Wade said that as a general rule, 90 percent of all civil cases are resolved short of trial. “I do not anticipate this will be a trial,” she said. “I anticipate resolution of this matter.”
One possible reason why Nonni has not yet agreed to a settlement is that he believes the state inspectors’ review of what happened may well work in his favor if and when a jury is asked to deliberate on the matter.
On March 15, Allan Harrison, chief of the bureau of fair rides inspection for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, submitted the bureau’s investigative report.
The report include summaries of field inspections, before and after the mishap, as well as details gleaned from interviews with owners of amusement park companies knowledgeable about the operational history of the Sizzler; representatives of the manufacturer, Wisdom Rides, based in Sterling, Colorado; as well as the Sizzler’s previous owner.
The bureau learned that while Sizzler rides had experienced similar deficiencies, in which the carrier assembly drops down the spindle shaft, other companies said this had not impacted the lower sweep. One amusement park company owner said Wisdom advised them to install plug welds into the spindle pipe and shaft to remedy the problem.
The ride’s previous owner, Gary Hughes, of Playland Amusements, told the bureau the Sizzler had been involved in two similar accidents, one in Kentucky in 2001, and a second in Tennessee in 2007, both of which resulted in injuries. Hughes told the bureau he contacted Wisdom, and after learning the estimated cost of updating the ride, opted to remove it from operation.
“Mr. Hughes relayed that during the sale of the ride to Mr. (Mike) Robb, he could not remember if he had mentioned any of the previous issues with the current owner,” read the report.
Victor Wisdom, a representative of the manufacturer, told the bureau the plug weld was a field fix recommended for rides made before a change in the design in the early ‘70s. He also confirmed that “new inspection criteria would be forthcoming regarding the Sizzler ride.”
According to the bureau’s report, review of the Sizzler amusement ride manual’s sections on inspection and maintenance requirements, “found no specific inspection requirements for the sweep spindle shaft, spindle shaft set screws, spindle shaft plug welds, or the spindle shaft tapered locking bushing.”
The bureau also found that in the three years since the ride was first permitted to Fun for Everyone Shows, this was the first reportable accident for the company, and that there had been no reported consumer complaints, ride defects or administrative complaints.
The bureau’s findings concluded that four separate ride components contributed to the cause of the accident: a worn spindle shaft, worn threads on the bottom locking nut and spindle shaft, and missing set screws in the spindle shaft.
The bureau wrote that a follow-up inspection of the spindle shaft showed “extensive wear on the shaft with groove and divot markings in the parent metal.
“Furthermore, the bottom locking nut and spindle shaft threads were found to be in poor condition with signs of extensive rust and corrosion which revealed flaking and deterioration of the locking nut threads,” it read. “The set screws designed by the manufacturer to secure the spindle pipe to the spindle shaft were not installed.
“Review of the Sizzler manual reveals no mention of any requirements to inspect these items; however during assembly and disassembly of the ride, when the spindle shaft is visible, the owner/operator has opportunities to view the components and determine of any damage is present on the spindle shaft where the carrier rotates,” read the report.
In a memorandum issued four days after the mishap by bureau inspector John Galvan, he concluded that while he could not make a conclusive determination as to the accident’s cause, due to the extensive damage, “from what I observed there is significant indications that the gold sweep vertical spinning shaft, bottom locking nut and bushing collar were not being properly maintained.”
The bureau wrote in its findings that Fun for Everyone Shows, Inc had violated a Florida statute that it operated a ride with a “a mechanical, structural, or electrical defect that affects patron safety, of which the owner or manager has knowledge, of, through the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have knowledge.”
Nonni has made several accusations in his complaint, regarding such things as negligent hiring, training, and supervision of amusement park employees, but concedes they are peripheral to the crux of the suit.
“Basically a nut at the bottom of the buckets that’s keeping them connected to the ride, this specific nut, was corroded and old,” he said. “They were negligent in failing to properly maintain the ride in a safe condition, and that caused it to essentially fly apart and enabled the thing to completely break up.”
Wade, on the other hand, contends the problem was not something her client could foresee.
“Our inspectors in the state do a fabulous job. They did a thorough inspection (beforehand) and didn’t find any problems,” she said. “The defect isn’t visible on the dismantling or set-up on this type of ride, not visible on inspection by anyone.
“The lock nut that failed was inside on the spindle, and upon dismantling the entire ride it was discovered,” she said. “Wisdom did not issue any warnings.”
As the case awaits resolution, one thing is certain: The Florida Seafood Festival won’t be using Modern Midways or Fun for Everyone Shows for the upcoming amusements.
Rather, they have contracted with James Gang Amusement Inc., a 25-year-old family-run carnival from Andalusia, Alabama, that festival director John Solomon said jumped out at him because of its stress on safety.
“Safety at James Gang Amusement is a top priority. Prior to opening, each piece of equipment is carefully inspected by a skilled midway manager and a ride superintendent using a inspection checklist. Each winter, we work extensively repairing, repainting, and refurbishing our equipment at our full service winter quarters facility,” reads their website.