Bethlehem Press

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Dorney Park lawsuit: Wait until all the facts are in

Thursday, February 14, 2019 by The Press in Opinion

Many area residents are outraged that a Lehigh County mother is suing Dorney Park in South Whitehall Township and its parent company, Cedar Fair of Sandusky, Ohio, for $150,000 because she said her daughter was unduly frightened and traumatized at the park’s Halloween Haunt in 2017.

They see it as an illegitimate attempt at a money grab from a deep-pocketed corporation

Shannon Sacco of Weisenberg Township brought the suit on behalf of her daughter, who was not identified, and herself, claiming that the girl was so frightened by one of the character actors at the park that she fell and injured herself.

Sacco said that she and her daughter were not informed that they could buy a “No Boo” necklace that glows in the dark and advises the actors not to spring fearfully upon these patrons.

News of the lawsuit set social media buzzing with many pointing to the lawsuit as “frivolous” and another example of our litigious society gone nuts.

“I would be rich by now had I sued for the pettiest of things that people are suing for today,” reacted one reader.

As for Dorney Park, it is undeterred and is offering passes to its 2019 Halloween Haunt. On select weekends this fall, the amusement park “transforms into Halloween Haunt featuring haunted mazes, scare zones, rides and monsters prowling the park.”

Noting that the Halloween Haunt is not recommended for children under the age of 14, Dorney Park in its promotional materials says, “What you can see will scare you; what you can’t see will haunt you. Fear is waiting for you.”

The lawsuit does not indicate how old Sacco’s daughter was at the time of the incident. The lawsuit said that when several of the costumed actors approached the girl, she pleaded with them to leave her alone because she was frightened. They backed off, the suit says, but another actor ran up to her and shouted into her ear, causing the girl to fall to the ground.

The suit did not indicate the nature of the injuries. The mother is seeking damages for her daughter’s injuries, pain and emotional and mental distress.

My first reaction when I learned of this legal action was: What were the mother and daughter expecting to find at a haunted house-type attraction? Isn’t having the bejesus scared out of you the whole idea of going to one of these places? The scarier, the better, right? Conversely, if you don’t want to be scared, then don’t go to this type of activity.

As I said, this was my first reaction, but having reported on lawsuits for much of my nearly 60 years in news work, I always remind myself that this is just the plaintiff’s side of the story. Although Dorney Park officials have not responded yet, they are expected to fight the suit.

A lot of these suits get settled for undisclosed sums. Big companies often find it easier and less expensive to get rid of nuisance complaints such as these just by paying a settlement that is less than the demand. Most of the time, the public never hears the outcome because of confidentiality agreements.

The granddaddy of these types of lawsuits occurred nearly 27 years ago when a jury awarded Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, $3 million after she spilled a cup of hot McDonald’s coffee on herself, causing third-degree burns.

Public reaction was, DUH! Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot? And didn’t the woman carelessly spill the coffee on herself while she was in a car with no involvement from anyone at McDonald’s?

Yes, Liebeck did spill the entire cup of coffee on herself as she tried to open the lid to add milk and sugar. The issue revolved around the temperature of the coffee McDonald’s was serving — 180 degree Fahrenheit.

Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated one. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injuries from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income, but McDonald’s offered just $800, so that’s why the case went to trial.

The jury found that Liebeck was partially to blame and reduced the compensation part of the award, but it assessed the big punitive damages because of McDonald’s unwillingness to correct the coffee policy despite knowing that scores of people suffered injuries from spills on themselves. The original punitive damage award was later reduced to about $600,000 by a judge. To avoid lengthy appeals, the two sides reached a confidential settlement.

The moral for all of us when it comes to knee-jerk reactions to lawsuits is: Wait until all of the facts are in.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com