Disney sued over death on train ride

Lawsuit alleges the theme park skimped on safety to cut costs.

The family of Disney ride-accident victim Marcelo Torres filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday, alleging that poor maintenance by Disneyland mechanics caused the accident that killed their 22-year-old son last year.

Torres was killed on Sept. 5, 2003, when the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster derailed and crashed in a tunnel. State safety investigators found that Disney mechanics had failed to tighten and wire down bolts on a crucial guide wheel and had used lax procedures for verifying repairs.

The state also found that Disney ride operators had heard unusual noises from the train prior to the accident that day.

The lawsuit, filed by Santa Ana attorney Wylie Aitken, also alleges that Disney "made decisions regarding maintenance and safety which eliminated various safety measures with the intent to increase corporate profits."

Disney officials said the resort had tried to settle with the Torres family but had been unsuccessful.

"We have offered a fair and just settlement, and it's regrettable that the plaintiffs have resorted to making false charges," said Disneyland spokesman Bob Tucker. "The safety of our guests and cast members has always been ourtop priority."

The Torres family has made these charges while looking for an economic settlement. But the lawsuit opens the door to a civil court proceeding that could put Disney safety practices on trial.

"Years ago, Disney was considered the leader in safety and maintenance programs. I would still think they are on the top of the heap," said Bill Avery, of Avery Safety Consulting in Orlando, Fla.

"But no one is immune from error or omission. If they made a conscious decision to do what Aitken is describing, that was a poor decision. But that's still got to be proven."

The lawsuit alleges Disney:

•Downsized the ride maintenance staff, saving the company millions of dollars.

•Adopted a "run to failure" approach to maintenance, instead of performing preventive maintenance.

•Mandated a "reduced downtime" policy, which made ride operators "fearful" of pulling trains out of service when problems were noted.

The lawsuit also alleges that Disney has continued to operate Big Thunder despite a long history of problems.

Disneyland's Tucker said the ride was reopened only after it was found by the state to be safe for operation.

Aitken is seeking punitive damages, which would require him to prove that Disney was either reckless or engaged in willful misconduct.

"The premise of our claim for punitive damages is that they cut back on maintenance, cut back on training, cut back on safety to increase the bottom-line profit," Aitken said in an interview. "There was a risk in doing that. They rolled the dice with public safety and they lost."

Aitken previously obtained a confidential settlement from Disney, estimated by experts at $20 million, for the family of Luan Dawson, killed when a metal cleat broke away from the Sailing Ship Columbia at Disney in 1998.

Aitken also filed lawsuits Tuesday on behalf of Vicente Gutierrez, a Torres friend who was next to him on the ride andsustained facial injuries, and on behalf of four members of the Van De Keere family, who received minor injuries.

Following the accident, and the report by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Disney agreed to retrain workers and institute new safety procedures.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was put back into service in March.

Less than a month later, on April 3, two empty trains collided during testing with no passengers on board, badly damaging one train.

On July 9, the ride was involved in the third accident in less than a year, when two trains collided in the loading station, causing minor injuries to five people. Aitken also represents passengers in that accident. The ride was reopened on Aug. 27.

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