July 12, 2014

Six Flags, ridemaker battle over liability in woman’s death on Texas Giant

Attorneys continue to take depositions in the court case filed by the family of a 52-year-old Dallas woman who fell to her death from the roller coaster on July 19.

Nearly a year after a Dallas woman fell to her death from the Texas Giant roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, the legal battle over liability in the accident is far from over.

Rosa Esparza’s family wants to find out why the 52-year-old woman fell off the thrill ride. Lawyers for Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, the German company that designed the coaster’s train cars, is blaming Six Flags, while the amusement park company is pointing the finger back at the ridemaker.

Two months after the lawsuit was filed last September, all sides attempted to settle the case through mediation. It didn’t work, and thus began the court fight.

Lawyers will spend the next several weeks taking more depositions and translating documents from the company in preparation for a late January trial date. The family is seeking more than $1 million.

But now that some documents have been turned over and witnesses have been questioned, Judge Wade Birdwell of the 342nd State District Court in Tarrant County could ask the lawyers to try again to settle the case by mediation. A trial could last four to six weeks, and legal observers say it’s not unusual for cases like this to drag on for several years.

So far, the case has been punctuated with hearings over how to deal with international laws that restrict depositions from foreign nationals and accusations from the plaintiffs that Gerstlauer’s lawyers have dragged their feet with scheduling conflicts.

“Despite the agreeableness of Mr. [Kenneth] Broughton and Mr. [David] Keltner, Gerstlauer’s other attorney, Arnd von Waldow, has been a thorn in the side of plaintiffs and the Six Flags defendants at almost every turn in this litigation,” according to a filing by Frank Branson, a Dallas lawyer who represents the Esparza family.

Von Waldow denies he has been an obstructionist, and recently attached a two-page timeline to a court filing to show what work has been done to satisfy the plaintiff’s lawyers. “To the contrary, Gerstlauer’s counsel was diligent, reasonable and prudent,” the filing says.

Family doing as well as expected

Branson said Esparza’s family continues to heal from their loss. “They’re doing the best they can,” he said, adding that they would not be talking to the media.

Esparza was thrown about 75 feet from the ride in the early evening of July 19, 2013, as her daughter and son-in-law sat in front of her. It was her first visit to the amusement park. The suit says Esparza was upside down in her seat and holding on for “dear life” before she fell to her death.

The Arlington Police Department and the park conducted investigations. Gerstlauer also sent a representative to investigate.

Following the accident, the ride was immediately shut down before reopening in September after Six Flags’ investigation found no mechanical failure was involved. Six Flags added redesigned restraint-bar pads provided by the manufacturer, as well as seat belts, and began providing a coaster seat at the ride’s entrance so guests can test whether they fit safely into the cars.

Lawyers for Esparza learned that the park had received, but stored, that test seat from Gerstlauer when the ride was reopened in 2011 following a yearlong $10 million renovation. The original Texas Giant opened in 1990.

They said the test seat should have immediately been put in place and contend that if it had been available for guests to use, the accident may have been avoided. Gerstlauer’s lawyers agree.

“It is inexplicable that they wouldn’t have used it,” said Broughton, Gerstlauer’s lawyer. “It’s another test guard. That’s the whole purpose of the seat.”

Sharon Parker, Six Flags Over Texas spokeswoman, said no additional changes have been made to the ride since then, and that the ride continues to be a fan favorite.

“We believe many of our guests appreciate the test seat, which allows them to determine their fit prior to waiting in line,” she said. “The safety of our guests is our No. 1 priority and our thoughts and prayers remain with the family.”

In the months following the accident, Six Flags corporate executives said attendance and revenue declined at the park.

Lawyers searching for accident cause

The family has sued Grand Prairie-based Six Flags Entertainment and three related entities, as well as Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, the 60-employee company based in Münsterhausen. Six Flags and Gerstlauer have also filed cross claims against each other.

Gerstlauer alleges that Six Flags employees failed to properly secure Esparza and to stop the ride when operators thought the restraint bar was not in its proper position. In addition to providing the test seat with a red light indicator, the company also provided seat belts that were not installed until after the accident.

Six Flags alleges the ride was defective and dangerous, and that it followed all the recommended operational and maintenance procedures as spelled out by Gerstlauer, even at the time of the accident.

Since September, the parties have taken seven depositions in the case. Lawyers for Six Flags and Gerstlauer have deposed Aracely Esparza Segovia, Esparza’s daughter, and her husband, Ronal Segovia. Branson has taken the depositions of a Texas Giant ride operator and two attendants, as well as the park’s director of maintenance and construction, and its operations manager.

A deposition is scheduled next week of a representative of Ride Entertainment Systems, the Maryland-based distributor of Gerstlauer products in the U.S., and next month the top executive of Gerstlauer will travel to Houston from rural Bavaria. A ruling will be made later in court about the depositions of three other Gerstlauer employees and a company consultant.

Broughton said in court that the company has provided more than 1,500 pages of documents to Six Flags lawyers and more than 43,000 pages of documents to the plaintiff’s lawyers.

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