[Update: Abiah’s family has retained our firm as counsel; here’s the Inquirer story about the suit we filed on their behalf. The below post was written and published before we represented them and should not be taken as a statement about the case on their behalf.]

If you’re in Southeastern Pennsylvania or Southern New Jersey, you undoubtedly heard the tragic story of Abiah Jones, the 11-year-old girl on a class trip who fell from a Ferris wheel at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, New Jersey. The cause of the accident is still unknown, but some have speculated that Abiah, who was riding alone in the gondola, either stood or kneeled on her seat. (It’s unknown, for example, if the ride operator instructed her to remain seated at all times or if winds contributed to the fall, and it’s undisputed the operator wasn’t watching her, or maybe anyone else, around the time of the fall.)

Amusement Ride-Related Children InjuriesAssuming that speculation is correct, 11-year-olds sometimes do things like kneel on the bench in a Ferris wheel; the growing brains of adolescents and pre-teens impairs their decision-making abilities by developing their emotional limbic systems ahead of their rational prefrontal cortexes. A sampling of emergency department visits arising from amusement ride-related injuries, displayed in the graph on the right (from this advocacy paper), showed that the number of injuries didn’t really start to drop off until kids reached 13, and then didn’t hit a consistent low until after age 18.

For whatever reason, when an amusement park accident occurs, the media finds it newsworthy when the family inevitably hires a lawyer. I don’t know why that particular event matters so much to reporters; to me, it would be newsworthy if the parents or family of a child who died while using a sophisticated machine didn’t hire a lawyer. Personal injury lawyers routinely investigate accidents in conjunction with state or federal investigations; at a minimum, the lawyer can provide oversight of the investigation and a second opinion, one that can be obtained on a contingent fee.

The Philadelphia Inquirer nonetheless thought a lawyer’s presence in Abiah’s investigation noteworthy, and dutifully attended the press conference:

Abiah Jones’ parents spoke at the Center City offices of their attorneys, who said they were investigating the June 3 accident at Morey’s Piers toward possibly filing a lawsuit. …

“They don’t know exactly what happened, and we’re going to see if we can find that out,” said Larry Bendesky, with the law firm Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky, which represents the victims in last summer’s duck boat crash on the Delaware River.

The firm has asked the amusement park for a video of the accident, which shows at least a portion of Abiah’s fall. They also are seeking eyewitnesses, though the state report said no one saw Abiah at the moment she fell out of the gondola.

[See update above about the family retaining our firm as counsel.]

Really, nothing to see here. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever about the Joneses hiring a lawyer or with that lawyer conducting his own investigation. We do the same day in and day out. So do all plaintiff’s firms that aren’t just advertising shells. People have rights. People want to know what happened to their loved ones. Lawyers can help with both.

But don’t tell that to the commentators on Philly.com:

Sorry they lost their child, it is a tragedy but it is also an accident with no negligence involved except maybe by the child itself. I hope they don’t get a dime. I think its disgusting that lawyering up is a priority to them.

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I hope a jury sees them for what they are – money grubbers who hired a lawyer less than a week after burying their daughter. Sick.

* * *

Now they’re saying Ferris wheels should have has seat belts? Give me a break, millions of people ride Ferris wheels every year and don’t fall out and there were no mechanical defects. No politician should be wasting any time on needless legislation. Ferris wheels are perfectly safe if you stay seated like your [sic] supposed to. These people are unfairly attacking Morey’s pier and the Ferris wheel manufacturer to look for someone to blame and to cash in.

One leading intellectual in the comments concluded: “Lawyers are the armpit in a moral and ethical society, and Jewish lawyers lead the charge there.” (Ignore the anti-Semitism for a moment and think through the metaphor — did they really mean to say that lawyers are indeed an unavoidable and useful part of a “moral and ethical society,” or are they too dumb to put together a proper insult?)

I used to think that “lawyering up” was a derogatory reference to asserting one’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent (and to request representation by an attorney in defense of criminal charges), but it seems that in recent years the pejorative “lawyering up” refers to any assertion of one’s legal rights through an attorney. Even President Obama used the phrase that way.

Let’s step back for a moment. Byron Jones, Abiah’s father, is a construction worker. I don’t know what Twanda Jones, Abiah’s mother, does for a living but nothing indicates that she’s a licensed New Jersey attorney.

Do you think Morey’s Piers didn’t lawyer up? That their insurer and the Ferris wheel makers’ insurer didn’t immediately dispatch a team of their own lawyers and investigators to do the exact same investigation Jones’ lawyers are doing? Would it be so wrong for Morey’s to bring in people — that is, lawyers — who have experience in these matters? If not, what’s wrong with the Jones’ doing the same?

Maybe there was a mechanical defect on the Ferris wheel, a defect the state investigators missed but which a private investigator might find. Maybe she wasn’t standing at all; maybe she was kneeling and a high wind gust knocked her out. Maybe she was playing around, but the operator failed to notice it and stop the ride. Maybe Ferris wheels do need seat belts; it’s not like it’s a secret that thousands of people are injured on amusement park rides every year (see also this one).

Which brings us to the point:

If it’s SAFETY these parents are concerned about – why are they seeking MONEY for themselves??!!?? Was their 11 year old supporting them financially???? So sad when parents use their dead children to hit the jackpot – for vacations, big screen TV, new cars etc. I notice these parents didn’t go after the school chaparone. Only because their was no money to be had with the chaporone.

“Jackpot.” This scribe who couldn’t be bothered to Google the correct spelling of “chaperone” has nonetheless looked deep into the soul of humanity and, with the phony “so sad” troll concern only ever expressed through anonymous comments on the Internet, recognized that, when your little girl falls 160 feet to her death, it’s like hitting the jackpot. Like someone would trade their honor roll fifth grader who was already talking about college for a big screen TV.

The clients of mine who have lost children don’t describe it as a “jackpot.” They usually don’t describe it as anything at all. It doesn’t matter how many cases you’ve done; every trial lawyer who represents clients in wrongful death lawsuits dreads calling parents to the stand to testify about how their child’s death has affected them. That loss is an essential part of the case. You have to ask the question, have to get at least a few words on the record, but it’s a terrible thing to ask of them: even a few words requires the parent collect together in their mind and bring to the surface emotions that the rest of us who haven’t lost children can scarcely imagine.

Yet, the imbecile who wrote the above touched upon one of the most important parts: the connection between safety and money. Why do amusement parks have all those height requirements? Why do they shell out the money to have operators for each and every ride? Why don’t roller coasters yank passengers around harder? Why can’t multiple people go down the water slide at once?

Because the amusement park companies don’t want to get sued. Because their insurance companies force them to make the rides safer, because they don’t want to keep paying out claims. Let’s get real: money equals safety. Money is the only stimuli to which these operators and insurance companies respond. Lawsuits make products safer, from automobiles to the Gravitron.

Stepping into an amusement park doesn’t mean assuming the risk of any and every peril that could befall you. More to the point, kids can do dangerous things. Companies that design, manufacture, operate, and profit from children’s activities should know that and plan for it. What’s wrong about investigating those companies’ conduct and, if there appears to have been negligence, testing that conduct in the courts and at trial?

Have insurance companies done such a good job at spreading anti-civil justice propaganda that we think cutting back on some insurance companies’ bills is more important than saving the lives of children?