Just hours before a rusted steel arm snapped on a carnival ride and flung passengers onto the ground at the Ohio State Fair last summer, four state inspectors gave the ride a final look.
In what their boss called a vigorous and lengthy review, the veteran inspectors said they didn’t notice any cracks, rust or blistered paint where the ride later broke apart.
Attorneys for the family of a teenager killed in the accident and four others left with life-changing injuries believe the inspectors missed obvious warning signs and should share in the blame.
But they won’t include the state or its inspectors in any lawsuits or settlements because Ohio, like many other states, gives its ride inspectors immunity from negligence accusations.
The result is most lawsuits target the ride owners and manufacturers but not the government-employed inspectors — a distinction that some attorneys think should raise questions about how much accountability there is for the people inspecting carnival rides.
Philadelphia attorney Jeffrey Reiff, who has handled and consulted cases involving amusement ride accidents, said immunity statutes put state officials above the law.
“We want to believe that ride inspectors are properly doing their jobs and that everything has been carefully inspected,” he said. “Unfortunately this is not the case.”
Immunity from negligence claims means a victim’s attorney would need to prove the inspectors intentionally ignored an obvious problem or meant to cause harm.
“That’s quite a high barrier to show that they were acting maliciously,” said Christopher Robinette, who teaches law at Widener University in Pennsylvania and follows ride safety.
The family of a 16-year-old who died when she was thrown from a ride two years ago at a church festival in El Paso, Texas, filed a lawsuit against the ride’s owner and the church but not the state. Among the claims was that the owner failed to properly inspect the ride. The family’s attorney wouldn’t discuss the details of their case, but he noted the standard of negligence is higher for the state’s inspectors in Texas.
Relatives of a Nebraska girl whose scalp was partially torn off in 2016 when her hair got caught in the spinning ride did include the state’s inspectors in their lawsuit. The state has countered that its inspectors should be exempt from the lawsuit’s claims.
“Everybody talks about too much government regulation,” said Steve Lathrop, the family’s attorney. “This is an area where it doesn’t seem there are enough standards for the operators and inspectors.”
The amusement industry has long maintained that inspections should be handled by individual states and has fought against attempts to create national standards. It’s up to each state to set its own regulations and decide how often thrill rides are inspected.
Saferparks, a nonprofit California group seeking to prevent amusement park accidents, says 20 states provide comprehensive oversight while nine states don’t have any state agencies that oversee its rides.
A Kansas waterslide touted as the world’s tallest where a 10-year-old boy was decapitated two summers ago was never inspected by the state because it wasn’t required. Since then, the state enacted a law that brings stricter inspections and more oversight of rides.
On the opening day of the Ohio State Fair in late July, both the state’s inspectors and those with a private company hired by the ride’s owner checked out the Fire Ball ride, which swings and spins riders seated in carriages.
An investigation by the State Highway Patrol later said it appeared the ride was approved by state inspectors per established standards.
Attorney Rex Elliott, who represents a 19-year-old woman who was critically injured, criticized the law that he said gives the state “a free pass.”
“Without legal recourse, state inspectors don’t have any incentive to do their job,” he said.
Ohio’s agriculture department, which oversees ride regulations, stands behind the work performed by its inspectors, said spokesman Mark Bruce. “All Department of Agriculture employees are accountable to the people of Ohio and they accept that responsibility,” Bruce said in a statement.
Messages seeking comment were left with the National Association Of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
No civil lawsuits have been filed so far from the Ohio accident, but two tentative settlements have been reached between the victims and the ride operator and private company that inspected the ride.
One settlement filed this past week would pay the family of an 18-year-old man who died at the fair nearly $1.3 million.
Elliott and other attorneys representing accident victims said they will push for laws that will increase the state’s legal responsibility and change how rides are inspected.
“We need much more stringent standards when it comes to inspecting these rides,” he said.
Inspectors typically work off a checklist provided by the manufacturer’s manual, said Greg Fehr, a veteran ride inspector and accident investigator in Nevada. “Most inspectors aren’t doing this by the seat of their pants,” he said.
Those manuals also outline a list of checks that should be handled by the ride operators, but his experiences have shown that doesn’t always happen, especially with portable rides, Fehr said.