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Documents detail previous incidents resulting in injury at Glenwood Caverns

A 9NEWS legal expert weighs in on whether or not an amusement park is liable if someone is injured or dies on a ride.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Following the death of a 6-year-old girl, new documents obtained by 9NEWS partners at the Denver Gazette detail previous incidents at Glenwood Caverns.

In the last 15 years, more than a dozen incidents have resulted in injuries, but the park has never been held liable.

"There’s a number of factors to look into because if there are a number of accidents of the same nature. For example, the same ride or the same type of mechanism is failing — that can certainly increase the park's liability,” 9NEWS legal analyst Whitney Traylor said.

Traylor is referring to the Alpine Coaster at Glenwood Caverns. According to documents obtained by the Denver Gazette, the ride had nearly a dozen incidents investigated by the Colorado Division of Oil and Public Safety since 2007. Most of the incidents resulted in injury.  

"The Alpine ride, I think, is a unique situation, because that’s the one ride or one of maybe a few rides where the rider has some sort of control about the speed and braking and how quickly they brake," Traylor said.

Documents say in 2007, a parent and daughter were thrown from the ride into a fence and hospitalized.

In 2010, a 10-year-old was ejected from the ride and landed in rocks. Documents say his face was dripping blood. Three days later, the Alpine Coaster failed a speed test.

In 2011, a woman broke her back after she failed to brake. The state determined she was at fault.

Jacob Burg, a shareholder and personal injury lawyer for Denver-based firm Burg Simpson, said they represented a woman who broke her back on the Alpine Coaster in 2015.

"As she was going down, there were stalled carts in front of her. I believe there were about nine stalled carts along the track," Burg recalled. "And what we learned throughout the course of this case is that this was the first year Glenwood Cavern's was operating the Alpine Coaster at night."

That particular claim alleges that among other things, the tracks did not have adequate lighting, headlights or taillights along the the ride's carts and didn't have a camera system along the track at the time.

The case was ultimately dismissed, according to Burg, because of a summary judgement by the court which said that because their client signed a release, her claim was not valid.

"Recreational activities that involve a waiver are basically immune from liability," Burg said. 

When it comes to the case of 6-year-old Wongel Estifanos, Burg said he believes it sends a message that something in the law regarding waivers has to change.

"And unfortunately, under the current state of the law, if these operators are not held accountable for maintaining the safety of their guests, these kind of things are going to continue to happen. And that's why it's so heartbreaking for me, because this is really about saving lives here." Burg said.

Credit: FILE

Traylor said, "I think the biggest issue here and in any of these accident type issues is the actual document that was signed essentially a waiver of liability which they require all patrons to sign before they come in."

The park requires everyone to sign a waiver. If a patron is under 18, a parent or guardian must sign. But many don’t understand the rights being waived.

“You’re signing a document saying 'Yes, I’m assuming the risk. I understand that.' And the document goes further and says 'We're not liable even if you get injured or you die. We’re not liable even if it’s our own negligence,'" Traylor said.

This is why the 2011 case was dismissed after the woman broke her back. Traylor says the waiver will make it difficult for the family of Wongel Estafanos to move forward with holding the park liable after she died on the Haunted Mine Drop.

“You have the waiver, plus no previous accidents on this particular ride that’s going to make it tough to find the amusement park liable,” Traylor said.

These rides are inspected on a yearly basis and have their own internal audits which make it hard to present issues surrounding Wongel’s death.

“Now, another issue could be it should’ve had a shoulder strap. But they’ve went through the safety inspections, it’s met all the requirements. So, the company is going to say 'We’ve never had an issue before; we’ve met all of the safety requirements,'" Traylor said.

Traylor suggests that anyone visiting an amusement park check the website to see if a waiver is there and if it's required. Read it and then determine whether you want to get on a ride or not.

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park says that while they remain open for business, the Haunted Mine Drop ride will not yet re-open. The park is doing an investigation which they say includes state authorities, independent ride inspection experts and park personnel.

The park put out another statement Tuesday afternoon from its general manager, Nancy Heard:

"Our deepest sympathy goes out to the family and all those impacted by this heart-breaking incident. As a company, as a team and as a member of the Glenwood Springs community, our primary focus, every day, is delivering a safe and fun experience. While serious incidents in the attractions industry are incredibly rare, and nothing like this has ever happened at Glenwood Caverns, one incident is one too many. For the family, for our guests and for our team members, we will not rush to re-open the ride.” 

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