Monday, August 15, 2005 Print This | Email This     

Man sues Dollywood for $20M, says roller coaster caused brain damage

By Emanuella Grinberg, Court TV

(Court TV) — A Mississippi electrician who brought his family to singer Dolly Parton's namesake amusement park for a vacation says his Smoky Mountain adventure ended in severe brain damage.

Arthur Miller, who visited the Pigeon Forge, Tenn., theme park in 2000, is seeking $20 million in damages from Dollywood and Dolly Parton Productions stemming from his ill-fated jaunt on the Blazing Fury, an indoor roller coaster that takes passengers through an Old West town "with great speed," according to Dollywood's Web site.

A suit filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville last week alleges that the defendants took inadequate measures to warn riders that "the unexpected turns and drops occurred in the dark and with such severity that a rider's head or neck could be snapped or whipped in such a way as to cause brain damage or stroke."

"It's a complicated case because of the medical injuries involved," said Mark Gratz, the plaintiff's attorney. "It took some heavy hitters to analyze the medical records."

Miller's lawyers say the aggressive twists and turns caused his neck to pop and are to blame for the vertigo and nausea that he developed immediately following the ride.

Almost five years later, Miller claims he is devoid of all sensory perception and motor skills and regularly experiences "debilitating strokes."

Miller's wife, who is also a plaintiff in the suit, is seeking an extra $2 million for the loss of her husband's consortium and other "tangible benefits" including "love, affection, attention, caring and companionship."

Miller's lawyers say the oversight makes the suit a flashpoint for the largely unregulated nature of amusement park rides.

"It's not just about the failure to warn about the ride, but the failure to maintain the ride," said co-counsel George Dent. "The industry has ignored this risk and wants it to go away."

In fact, soon after Miller's injury occurred, U.S. Rep. Edward Mackey (D-Mass.) instigated a congressional hearing on amusement park ride safety.

In Tennessee, where tourist-attracting businesses such as Dollywood have revitalized local economies and where a former amusement park manager was recently convicted of homicide for a visitor's death, State Rep. Richard Montgomery has been pushing for new safety legislation for years.

"We needed to develop a board to provide oversight and make sure that the laws we passed were being enforced," Montgomery said.

New laws, which go into effect January, will require parks to prove they have $1 million insurance policies before an independent safety inspection of the specific ride can go forward, or else the ride may not operate.

A spokesperson for Dollywood said the park denies Miller's claims and remains proud of its role as an industry leader in terms of safety.

"Our rides are monitored continuously and meticulously throughout the year, whether the park is opened or closed," said spokesman Pete Owens.

Owens said he is unaware of any previous injury involving the Blazing Fury, which he said predates Dollywood's buyout of the amusement park property 20 years ago.

He also said Dollywood has been cited on numerous occasions for going beyond the industry standards set by American Society of Testing for Testing Materials, which provides independent testing of its rides each year.

"On the Smoky Mountain train ride, we make adults sit on the outside seat and the kids on the inside, even though we are not required to," Owens said.

  • More trial and crime news from Court TV