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Theme-Park Suits Rarely See Courtrooms

In the midst of the fatal accident on Wednesday at Orlando SeaWorld, one begs to ask: how often do theme parks get sued? 

The question comes in light of the horrific events on Wednesday, where a SeaWorld employee was dragged into the water by a whale, with children surely watching the scene unfold. The SeaWorld veteran employee was thrashed around violently and pronounced dead by the time officers arrived to help her.

But will the families of the poor, horrified, traumatized children be suing SeaWorld for negligent infliction of emotional distress? 

The truth, according to the Orlando Sentinel, is that most theme-park lawsuits never even go to trial, whether they be for a fatal accident, brain injury or other personal injury.

Take, for example, the case of Mary Ann Williams, a 35-year-old Prairieville La. woman, who claimed that she suffered a stroke while riding a popular flight-simulator ride at Universal Orlando. She settled out-of-court, in a hush-hush settlement with no admission of fault on the part of the theme park. 

According to the Sentinel, of 477 Florida personal injury lawsuits against theme-park companies, 101 of the cases involved people who claimed they were injured by rides or attractions. Of those 101 cases, not one reached a jury trial. As of March 2009, twenty-three of those cases were still pending and seventy-eight of those cases were either settled out of court or dismissed by a judge. 

Under Florida and California law, major theme parks report any injuries that occur as a result of theme park attractions.  

Despite the obligation to report, the information disclosed is usually minimal and some of it may be protected from discovery in litigation cases, as the theme parks tend to cite "attorney-client privilege." In one case where a patron suffered brain injury as a result of a ride, the responsible Florida theme-park reported her injury as "feeling ill." 

The lesson in all of this: If you plan to sue a theme park for injuries, don't give up your day job just yet.

As for the whale incident at Orlando SeaWorld, it will be interesting to see where the legal liabilities of SeaWorld lie in the next few months. 

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