Jury: Kennywood injuries not caused by "King Kahuna" ride malfunction

Defense argued plaintiff needed surgery for pre-existing condition

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An Allegheny County jury found that an amusement park's negligence was not the factual cause of injuries a woman suffered while on Kennywood's "King Kahuna" ride.

On July 5, 2008, Sonya Smith, 43, of Penn Hills rode the "King Kahuna" at the Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin, and later alleged that the ride caused spinal damage.

The ride, which has since been sold and is no longer at the park, features a bed of 40 seats suspended between two pendulum-like arms that rotate and lift the seating area up to a height of 40 feet, while the seats rotate as riders spin forward and backward. Riders are seated and held in place by over-the-shoulder harnesses.

Ms. Smith said that at the end of the ride's sequence, instead of stopping with the riders in normal seated position, the ride rolled through the end point and stopped so that riders were suspended upside down. Ms. Smith claimed that she was pressed against the harness, and against other riders, for approximately 15 minutes, during which time she allegedly suffered injuries including cervical-spine damage, later undergoing cervical fusion.

Ms. Smith, who had been at Kennywood for a company picnic, sued park owner Festival Fun Parks LLC for $195,000. The trial was heard by Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Colville in January.

The defense stipulated to negligence, and the case proceeded to trial as to causation- and damages-related issues.

After Ms. Smith exited the ride, she was examined by the park's first-aid staff and then left the premises. Ms. Smith claimed that she was unable to move her neck and also experienced numbness in her left hand.

Two days later, she went to the emergency room at Western Pennsylvania Hospital, where she was examined and released. Two days after that, while in Florida, she went to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg with ongoing complaints.

There, it was determined that she had suffered an aggravation of pre-existing cervical osteoarthritis. She was put on a course of physical therapy and medication, which reportedly proved unsuccessful. On Sept. 20, 2009, she underwent a cervical fusion, followed by further therapy.

Her suit sought to recover $21,200 in damages for past medical expenses.

Ms. Smith's treating neurosurgeon testified that being suspended upside down for eight to 20 minutes aggravated her pre-existing cervical osteoarthritis, necessitating a cervical fusion at two levels, with titanium plate and screws.

But during the three-day trial, the defense's expert in neurosurgery, J. Bookwalter III, said that Ms. Smith did not sustain any injury as a result of the July 2008 incident, and concluded she had pre-existing degenerative diseases that consisted of neck arthritis and cervical stenosis of her spinal cord, which, it was argued, contributed to chronic neck pain and other symptoms.

Ms. Smith, the defense said, was going to require the surgery because of her pre-existing condition, the incident at the amusement park notwithstanding.


This report first appeared in VerdictSearch Pennsylvania, a publication of ALM.


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