Connecticut: High Court Rules Against Worker Killed by Roller Coaster

An amusement park worker who was killed by a roller coaster is not entitled to damages beyond his workers' compensation benefits, the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of Wilfredo Martinez against Lake Compounce Theme Park Inc. and other related parties alleges that Martinez was struck and killed by the "Boulder Dash" roller coaster while he was performing lawn maintenance at Lake Compounce theme park in Bristol, Conn.

The lawsuit sought monetary damages from Lake Compounce Theme Park Inc., Lake Compounce LP and Kennywood Entertainment Co., claiming that the parties intentionally created a dangerous workplace condition that made Martinez's injuries substantially certain to occur.

After a trial court ruled in favor of Lake Compounce et al., the estate of Martinez appealed and the Connecticut Supreme Court decided to review the case.

Lawsuit: Boulder Dash Was on a Test Run

According to the lawsuit, Martinez was employed as a grounds maintenance worker at Lake Compounce theme park. On the morning of June 13, 2001, a grounds manager told Martinez to cut grass and weeds beneath the Boulder Dash using a gasoline-powered weed cutter, according to the suit.

While Martinez was cutting weeds beneath the Boulder Dash, a ride mechanic began testing the roller coaster unaware that Martinez was under the tracks, the lawsuit contends.

During that test run, the roller coaster struck and killed Martinez. According to the Lake Compounce Web site, the Boulder Dash has a top speed of more than 65 mph.

Although Martinez's estate "received the appropriate workers' compensation benefits," according to the Supreme Court opinion, the estate filed a three-count lawsuit against Lake Compounce et al.

In the first count of the lawsuit, the Martinez estate alleged that Lake Compounce failed to provide for Martinez's safety in 13 ways. Among them, the suit alleged that Lake Compounce failed to:

  • Have in place a safety mechanism that would prevent the roller coaster from operating when employees were working under the track;
  • Provide appropriate training on the safe maintenance and testing of roller coasters;
  • Establish procedures requiring mechanics to make sure that all employees were out of harm's way prior to testing the roller coasters; and
  • Comply with certain industry safety standards.

The second and third counts of the lawsuit accused Lake Compounce and Kennywood Entertainment of negligence. In the third count, the lawsuit contends that Kennywood was the "alter ego" of Lake Compounce Theme Park Inc. and that Kennywood "had exercised complete dominion and control" over the Bristol, Conn., theme park.

The trial court ruled in favor of the defendants on all three counts. Among its conclusions, the trial court pointed to previous case law and said that the Martinez estate did not prove that Lake Compounce created working conditions in which injuries were substantially certain to occur. The trial court found that the allegations did not "translate to an affirmative intent to create an injury-causing situation."

Supreme Court: Main Issue Was Intent

In looking at this appeal, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Flemming Norcott Jr. notes that the principal issue is whether Martinez's sole remedy for his injuries under Connecticut law is from workers' compensation benefits, as the trial court concluded.

Norcott points to the Workers' Compensation Act of the Connecticut General Statutes, which requires employers to provide workers' compensation coverage for their workers but shields employers from civil lawsuits stemming from workplace injuries unless a worker can prove that his or her employer a) intended to injure the employee or b) intentionally created a dangerous environment in which the employee's injuries were substantially certain to occur. (Norcott refers to the latter as the substantial certainty standard.)

The estate of Martinez sought to recover damages from Lake Compounce et al. under the substantial certainty standard. To do so, a worker must go beyond showing that his or her employer had a devil-may-care attitude toward worker safety; instead a worker must prove that "his employer believed that its conduct was substantially certain to cause the employee harm," Norcott explains.

Ultimately, Norcott and Justices David Borden, Joette Katz and Peter Zarella agreed that the Martinez lawsuit failed to meet the substantial certainty standard.

" … [A]lthough the plaintiff's complaint contains numerous allegations of state and federal safety violations, inadequate communication procedures and deficient safety training, the complaint conspicuously omits any claim that the defendants intended harm to befall [Martinez] or anticipated that harm would result from their conduct," Norcott wrote. "Although the plaintiff's complaint does assert that the defendants 'intentionally' failed to correct several dangerous conditions on the premises, this assertion, standing alone, is insufficient to satisfy the substantial certainty test because, as the trial court correctly stated, 'failure to take effective remedial action does not translate to an affirmative intent to create an injury-causing situation.'"

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