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Injured Boy’s Family, Disney Settle Lawsuit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family of Brandon Zucker, the boy severely brain-damaged when he was trapped beneath a spinning ride at Disneyland in September 2000, on Friday settled a lawsuit against the Walt Disney Co.

The terms of the settlement are confidential, but the amount is enough to ensure that Brandon “will continue to receive the finest medical care for the rest of his life,” according to a joint statement issued Friday by the Walt Disney World Co. and the family’s attorneys, Thomas Girardi and Amy Fisch Solomon.

“This has always been our primary mutual objective,” the statement said, adding that the settlement does not assign fault. The case was scheduled to go to trial on Monday.

The accident was the first major test case for a California law regulating amusement parks.

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A state investigation found that operator error contributed to the accident and ordered design changes to improve safety. The amusement park complied and the ride has since reopened.

Brandon, who turned 6 last month, remains hospitalized at HealthBridge Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Orange. He suffered irreversible brain damage and cannot talk or walk. He is sustained through a feeding tube.

The accident on the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin ride occurred when the family was visiting the park to celebrate the 40th birthday of Victoria Zucker, Brandon’s mother.

Afterward, the family moved to Orange County from their home in northern Los Angeles County to be closer to Brandon. But with the money from the settlement, they hope to return to the Santa Clarita area and have Brandon live with them.

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Brandon’s father, David Zucker, said the settlement will take care of Brandon’s needs, which “is all we wanted.”

None of the settlement details were disclosed but Santa Ana attorney Wylie Aitken, who settled a wrongful-death case with Disneyland stemming from a Columbia Sailing Ship accident, estimated the Zucker settlement would probably fall “in the area of $30 million.”

That figure, Aitken said, is based on three factors: Brandon will not be able to take care of himself financially, he will require lifetime medical care, and “it is a permanent destruction of the quality of life.”

Despite what Girardi called a guarded long-term prognosis, Brandon laughs and smiles and responds to his parents, showing far more progress than doctors expected.

In the first days after the accident, doctors were unsure whether he would survive.

But Brandon, who once loved riding his scooter with his brother Nicholas and running about and punching the air like boxer Rocky in the Sylvester Stallone movies, kept fighting back. Even today, Girardi said, he “continues to show great strength and improvement.”

Since December, Brandon has spent half-days in a special education program at a public school in Tustin, bused there each day from HealthBridge.

“Mr. and Mrs. Zucker are massively pleased that this part of the ordeal is over,” Girardi said. “Obviously, like any mom and dad, they were not looking forward to actually going through the trial.

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“They are also very pleased with the settlement. They know that it will take care of Brandon for the rest of his life if something should happen to either or both of them.”

Family friend Elinor Silverstein said the Zuckers wanted to thank everyone who prayed for Brandon. Now, she said, “They’re ready to move on and they need peace and quiet in their lives.”

While this settles the family’s legal case without a trial, the last year has been difficult for the Zuckers.

The simplest pleasures, such as Christmas shopping for toys, are now heartbreaking, the family said in a recent interview. Even Brandon’s 6th birthday celebration took place at the hospital.

Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez declined to provide additional details on the settlement, but said, “We wish them well and we’re glad that this is behind us.”

The accident plunged Disneyland into the media spotlight for days as questions were raised about ride safety and park procedures.

Brandon was riding with his brother and mother in a simulated taxicab on the Roger Rabbit ride on Sept. 22, 2000, when he fell out of the car’s entryway and was pinned under a following car, in which his father and grandmother were riding.

He was dragged about 10 feet before the ride stopped automatically.

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His 45-pound frame was trapped under the taxi for about 10 minutes as his father, emergency workers and Disneyland guests worked frantically to lift it off.

When freed, Brandon was not breathing and had no pulse. He spent days in a drug-induced coma at UCI Medical Center in Orange.

He suffered a torn liver, spleen and diaphragm and a collapsed lung. His pelvic bone was fractured. He suffered massive brain damage from lack of oxygen.

After the accident, state investigators issued a report finding that Brandon was seated in the wrong spot--closest to the cutout entryway--and that ride operators may have failed to lower a lap bar completely.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health ordered several safety changes and Disney overhauled the ride by adding automatic latching doors, sensor-equipped bumpers and both audio and written warnings.

Disney officials have repeatedly maintained the ride is safe, even without the state-ordered changes.

The ride--a whimsical, spinning taxicab tour that takes passengers through scenery based on the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"--travels less than 3 mph, a walking pace.

With the exceptions of Brandon and a 13-year-old girl who suffered minor foot injuries when she jumped off the ride to retrieve a stuffed animal, more than 20 million visitors to Disneyland have ridden the attraction safely.


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