Kansas may not be known for many things, but now it can be known for having the world’s tallest water slide and the terrible accident that decapitated a ten-year-old boy.
Caleb Schwab rode the water slide at Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City with two female adult strangers. The ride is a 168-foot-tall “Verruckt,” which means “insane” in German. Two to three thrill-seekers ride on a multi-person raft down the drop in a tube encased with netting, and all are strapped in separately. According to eyewitness accounts, Caleb was somehow ejected from his seat and bounced around between the netting surrounding the slide. Other patrons claimed that Caleb sat in the front seat, but the Velcro harness in the front didn’t work effectively. According to news reports, the combined weight of all three riders must reach at a minimum 400 pounds. Witnesses claimed that Caleb and the two female riders did not reach 400 pounds.
Caleb’s cause of death was ruled a “neck injury.” The other two riders were treated for minor facial injuries. His death is being investigated as a civil, not criminal, matter. However, details are vague and authorities have not disclosed much information regarding the accident.
Questions remain as to how Caleb died and whether his death was caused by the ride itself, the safety equipment, or some other malfunction. What causes of action can Caleb’s family bring and against whom for this tragic accident?
Wrongful death is a legal cause of action brought by a victim’s surviving family members when a person dies due to the negligent misconduct of another person or entity. The surviving family members have a right to bring a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the responsible party.
So what does a family member have to prove in a wrongful death case? First, the party (plaintiff) would have to prove that the accused party (defendant) owed a duty of care to the deceased person. In this case, the water park owes all of its patrons a duty of care to ensure that all the rides are safe. Evidently the water slide was not safe, either from some machinery malfunction, a faulty harness, failure to enforce the rules, or some combination of them.
Second, defendant must have breached the duty of care. Here, Caleb’s family members could show that the water park’s duty of care was breached if they didn’t follow specific safety standards required of all water park rides. For instance, let’s say there’s a requirement that all water park slides over 70 feet tall must have an over-the-shoulder harness that is strapped in with seatbelt. Reports state that Schlitterbahn Water Park’s harnesses used Velcro. If that were the case, the park breached its duty of care to Caleb.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, plaintiff must demonstrate that defendant’s particular action directly caused the wrongful death. If there’s a motor vehicle accident and defendant ran a red light while driving, the defendant still wouldn’t be liable if the decedent’s death was actually caused by an airbag that deployed moments before the accident (depending on the state’s laws).
Given what we know about Caleb’s death and the eyewitness accounts, his family should pursue a wrongful death cause of action as their claim seemly has evidence to support it.
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress to Bystanders
When someone is injured, they can bring a cause of action known as negligent infliction of emotional distress. It is a claim that is used when the defendant acts so carelessly that he or she must compensate the injured person for his or her mental or emotional injury. “Bystanders” may also claim this cause of action if they are a close family member and witnessed or arrived immediately on the scene of an accident where another family was injured or killed by the defendant’s negligence.
It’s unclear whether Caleb’s family was waiting at the end of the slide for his arrival. If they were, we can only imagine the horrific scene that they witnessed moments after Caleb was decapitated. While reports remain unclear as to what anyone saw, witnesses do corroborate that a crowd of people gathered at the bottom of the slide, and that Caleb’s body was found there. Assuming that was the case and his family saw or came upon the scene later, they could claim negligent infliction of emotional distress as bystanders.
Legal claim aside, one can only hope that Caleb’s family members didn’t witness the scene.
Authored by Erin Chan-Adams, Legal Match Legal Writer and Attorney at Law