By Michael Roberts
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Benagh believes that many visitors to Elitch's assume that no one ever gets injured on the rides, and she says she wants the public to know that things can go badly wrong. "I think people would be shocked to see what a totally unregulated industry this is," she says. "With these high-tech thrill rides, safety needs to be addressed."
Since Benagh and her two sons visited Elitch's on a warm July night in 1997, her life has been turned upside down. For fifteen years she was a sales associate for Merrill Lynch, but she hasn't worked since the accident. She's been living on disability benefits and has spent most of her time seeing doctors and attending multiple therapy programs.
She remembers the night she set out for an evening of innocent fun with her children. Her two boys--then ages twelve and nine--begged her to accompany them on the Mind Eraser. "They wanted me to go," says Benagh. "They wanted to see me scream."
But according to Benagh, during the ride, she hit her head several times against the back of her seat and blacked out for a few seconds. She remembers feeling nauseous and disoriented when she stepped off of the Mind Eraser. "I felt like I'd been hit by a two-by-four," she recalls, "but I got up and walked away."
Her problems worsened in the following weeks. Besides neck and back pain, one of her eyes started bleeding and she had difficulty focusing her vision. She also had a hard time remembering things.
"I could hang up the phone and not have an inkling who I had talked to," she says. "When you first have a head injury, you're like a dish rag--you can hardly function. When I'd go to a restaurant and they'd give me change, I couldn't add it up. When I answered the phone, my speech was slurred, and I was afraid to drive. Then I knew something was wrong."
Benagh says she waited several months, until she was sure she had a serious head injury, before contacting Elitch's to tell them she had been injured on the ride. The employee who took her complaint claimed to be surprised. "She told me she hadn't heard of anybody else getting hurt on that ride," remembers Benagh.
After Benagh filed an insurance claim against Elitch's, the park investigated and told her they thought her injuries were the result of a pre-existing condition--a deviated septum, says Benagh.
"That really pissed me off," she adds. "That's when I saw an attorney."
No one really knows how many people are injured at amusement parks every year. Federal officials estimate that 8,700 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in 1997 for injuries sustained on amusement rides. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which compiles the statistics from an annual survey of dozens of hospitals across the country, also estimates that 36 people were killed on amusement rides at carnivals and parks between 1987 and 1998 and that 34 people died on roller coasters alone between 1973 and 1997.
Since more than 270 million people visit American amusement parks each year--including 1.5 million visitors to Elitch Gardens--the chance of being hurt is small.
The CPSC says it isn't able to determine the percentage of people being injured on the new, high-intensity amusement rides from the information it gathers. "The only source for that kind of exposure data would be the industry," says Ken Giles, spokesman for the agency.
However, the CPSC data makes it clear that the overall rate of injury from amusement rides has increased in recent years. In 1994 the agency estimated 7,400 injuries; in 1995 it was 7,700; and in 1996 it estimated there were 8,600 injuries. By 1997, the number had increased by 18 percent over just three years earlier, to 8,700.
Because there are no federal or state standards on acceptable levels of risk in amusement rides, there is evidence that some parks make that determination based on the number of insurance claims or lawsuits they receive from patrons. If they get a lot of claims for one ride, they may decide to slow it down or close it altogether.
Earlier this month, Disneyland settled out of court with a California woman who sued the park claiming that a ride on the Indiana Jones Adventure triggered a brain hemorrhage. That ride, which opened in 1995, puts visitors into twelve-passenger "jeeps" that simulate an off-road trip with sharp turns and sudden drops. The ride has 160,000 possible combinations of twists and turns, which are randomly selected by a computer.
As part of that lawsuit, Disney was forced to disclose its safety records on the ride. The documents revealed that hundreds of people had reported being injured on the Indiana Jones Adventure; maladies ranged from broken teeth to bruises. The documents also showed that Disneyland designers tracked complaints and injuries on the ride and modified the attraction in response to the reports.
Disneyland's attorneys fiercely resisted having to disclose the safety information in court. Similarly, Elitch's lawyers told Denver District Court Judge Michael Mullins that the safety records from the Mind Eraser's 1998 season do not pertain to Benagh's complaint and are part of a "fishing expedition" by her attorney. The park's lawyers have also insisted that most of the information released to the court must be withheld from the public through a confidentiality order.