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Six Flags settles suit in Arlington roller-coaster death

Six Flags Over Texas and the German roller-coaster maker Gerstlauer have reached a settlement with the family of Rosa Esparza, the 52-year-old Dallas woman who was killed last year when she fell from the Texas Giant in Arlington, Six Flags officials said Tuesday.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

“The Esparza family is very pleased with the settlement and appreciates the condolences offered by Six Flags and Gerstlauer,” the family’s lawyers, Frank Branson and Garret Chambers, said in a statement released by the park.

The family had originally sought $1 million, according to a news report. Six Flags had set aside $3 million to cover legal fees, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission

“Our deepest condolences, thoughts and prayers will forever be with the Esparza family,” said Steve Martindale, president of Six Flags Over Texas. “We are thankful that all parties could reach an agreed settlement.”

Gerstlauer’s attorney, Arnie von Waldow, said: “From the very beginning, it was a very tragic and unfortunate event. We’re all glad it’s over. I think it was a fair and equitable resolution for all parties concerned.”

Esparza’s family filed suit two months after her death against Grand Prairie-based Six Flags Entertainment Corp. and three other Six Flags-related entities, as well as Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, a 60-employee company based in Münsterhausen. Six Flags and Gerstlauer filed cross-claims, blaming each other for the death.

All sides tried to settle the case through mediation. When that failed, a three-sided court fight ensued until Tuesday’s settlement was announced.

Esparza was thrown about 75 feet from the ride in the early evening of July 19, 2013. Her daughter and son-in-law sat in front of her. It was her first visit to the amusement park.

The lawsuit said Esparza was upside-down and holding on for “dear life” before falling to her death.

She first hit a metal support beam and then landed on the metal roof of a tunnel, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office.

The ride was immediately shut down. It reopened in September after an investigation by Six Flags found that 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 may test whether they fit safely into the cars.

Gerstlauer’s position was 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.

Six Flags’ stance was that the ride was defective and dangerous and that its employees followed all the operational and maintenance procedures spelled out by Gerstlauer.

Relatives described Esparza as “the glue that held the family together.”

“She was a good mother,” attorney Branson said in December. “She was very close to all the family members. This is a huge loss.”

At issue in the lawsuit was whether the ride’s safety mechanism worked properly. Witnesses told police that Esparza had trouble with the lap bar and that they suspected that could have caused the fall.

The suit also says inspections of the roller coaster since her death “showed that various parts of the security systems on the ride were experiencing inconsistencies and intermittent failures.”

One witness told police that while she was getting on the ride, a woman was screaming that her leg was trapped.

“She had her leg sticking out too far when the gates closed that hold back the next riders — and it trapped her leg,” the witness wrote in an email to investigators.

Another witness said Esparza had questions about whether she was secured correctly. Questions were also raised about whether her weight was a factor.

Investigators interviewed park employees and were told that the safety sensors and safe buttons on the ride were working properly that day.

The coaster’s restraining system works on hydraulic pressure, an investigator wrote. “Each restraint is connected to an electronic sensor that is only illuminated in the safe mode when the restraint is lowered to its predetermined position. Once this sensor is illuminated, the train then sends a signal to the operating panel confirming the restraint position.”

If the sensor malfunctions or the restraint is not lowered properly, the investigator reported, “the train will not function and would not be allowed to depart the train depot.”

In addition, employees who load the ride must push a “safe” button for the train to clear the station, the investigator wrote.

The Texas Giant is 14 stories high and has a drop of 79 degrees and a bank of 95 degrees. It can carry up to 24 riders. It opened in 1990 as an all-wooden coaster but was renovated at a cost of $10 million to install steel-hybrid rails. It reopened in 2011.

Texas law does not require any state investigation into amusement park deaths, so the park handled the inquiry.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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