Suit Faulting Disney Safety Due for Trial

Times Staff Writer

Disney is facing more allegations of faulty maintenance procedures, this time by a Milwaukee surgeon who said he suffered whiplash and an ongoing neurological disorder after riding a roller coaster at its California Adventure amusement park.

The doctor's negligence lawsuit, which goes to trial next week in Orange County Superior Court, challenges whether a safety restraint was properly lowered and lubricated.

The trial comes days after the release of a state report on the fatal crash on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in September. In that incident, safety investigators found that Disneyland mechanics failed to tighten bolts and insert a safety wire on the coaster, and maintenance managers signed off on work they had not inspected.

"You just have a terrible maintenance situation there," said Los Angeles attorney Marc Feldman, claiming that the maintenance problems identified by the state at Disneyland have surfaced at its sister park.

Disneyland Resort spokeswoman Sondra Haley said it was unfair to draw similarities between the two cases.

"This is a shameful attempt to try to capitalize on a very unfortunate tragedy in a completely unrelated matter," Haley said. "This alleged incident is without merit and happened at a different park on a different ride in a different year."

Feldman filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of David Heber, a Milwaukee surgeon who said he was injured on the California Screamin' roller coaster in August 2001.

According to Heber, the over-the-shoulder restraint was never fully lowered before the ride left the station, despite his attempts to catch a ride operator's attention.

Heber contends that he was violently shaken, jolted and pummeled, causing whiplash and ongoing injuries. He has never recovered, Feldman said, and has been forced to give up his career and go on permanent disability.

After the incident, Heber did not complain to ride operators or guest services, nor did he file a claim with the park when his condition did not improve.

During depositions, a Disney project engineer told Heber's attorneys that they decided not to lubricate the restraint system even though manufacturer's guidelines and their own maintenance policies required it.

The engineer told attorneys he made "a unilateral decision not to lubricate the restraint system because access to lubrication points was somewhat problematic," Feldman said.

Despite that decision, the park's maintenance slips indicated the work was being done even when it wasn't, Feldman alleged.

Jury selection in the case is expected to begin next week.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction Disneyland accident -- An article in Friday's California section about how Disneyland visitors reacted to a state report on September's fatal ride accident incorrectly suggested that "Disney's maintenance policies had been faulted" by safety inspectors. The report blamed employees at various levels for not following the park's safety procedures, which it found were proper.
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