A Family Lives in Limbo After an Amusement Park Accident

Luke Gibbs and his children, Dylan, left, and Jake at their home in Maidenhead, Britain.

HASLEMERE, England — Luke Gibbs drives from his home in Maidenhead south to Surrey about once a month now.

It’s been three years since his wife, Rachel, an American, was critically injured in a go-kart accident at a Michigan amusement park. Because it was an unseasonably cool August day, Rachel wore a scarf, which got caught in one of the go-kart’s axles, snapping her windpipe, an injury that left her without higher brain function. She is now in a long-term care center southwest of London.

“Originally I was coming every other day to see Rachel, but you start to accept that her condition is as it is,” Mr. Gibbs, 43, said, eyes on the road. “One doctor at the very early stages said once you are in a permanent vegetative state, you’re in that level of consciousness, it wouldn’t matter whether I visited constantly, or whether I visited once every 10 years, or 100 years.”

The accident provided a grim window for Mr. Gibbs into the scattershot oversight of American amusement parks. Parks are exempted from federal regulation, leaving supervision to the vagaries of the states, and six have no oversight: Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah. Elsewhere, companies are typically relied on to report incidents.

In Ms. Gibbs’s case, court and state records indicate an ill-prepared park and a perfunctory review after the accident. Management at the park, AJ’s Family Fun Center, near Grand Rapids, never expressed remorse until being contacted by The New York Times three years later.

In the early 1980s, park operators successfully lobbied to shield amusement parks from federal oversight by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Starting in 1999, when Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, was a House member, he sought to bring federal oversight, calling it a “gigantic ‘regulatory black hole’ for park visitors.”

He introduced the legislation for more than a decade, but Disney successfully lobbied against it, along with its competitors. “It seeks to address a problem that does not exist,” the head of the industry’s main lobbying group, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said in 2008.

The failure to pass such legislation has left uneven oversight.

After a teenager died and seven were injured last year in an accident at an amusement ride at the Ohio State Fair, a federal investigation followed, conducted by the product safety commission, whose full findings have not been released. Mobile parks with rides that can be moved, like carnivals and state fairs, have less clout and are not exempted from federal regulation.

But when a 10-year-old was decapitated at a Kansas water park in 2016, or a woman fell to her death from a Texas roller coaster in 2013, there was no federal oversight. Those so-called fixed parks aren’t subject to the same rules.

“In our experience, robust state regulations are the most effective and proactive way to ensure ride safety,” said Greg Hale, chief safety officer for Disney Parks, in a statement, adding, “We have long been a key industry leader in developing and advocating for rigorous safety standards.”

Susan L. Storey, a spokeswoman for the parks association, said “guidance for the safe operation of rides comes from well-defined international standards,” adding that “rides may also be subjected to layers of third-party examination and inspection including state, local, insurance, and other independent evaluations.”

Amusement rides are hardly the biggest threat to American safety, though there is no hard injury data. The safety commission estimates there were 29,400 amusement ride injuries requiring emergency treatment last year at all types of parks, as well as inflatable attractions and even coin-operated rides at shopping malls. In its own separate estimates, the industry says there is only a one in 17 million chance of injury at fixed-site parks.

The lack of federal oversight troubles some advocates, particularly relating to small parks with limited resources.

“Many states will give you what the parks are telling them,” said Kathy Fackler, who became an activist after her son was injured at a park in the late 1990s. “Even in the states that have good programs, the compliance is all over the map.”

Mr. Gibbs’s wife was a photographer and once worked as an art director at Getty Images. He recounted the accident — the noise of the karts, the exhaust fumes. His wife showed her handbag to an attendant, who gave no warning about the scarf. Her car swept ahead. Mr. Gibbs, in another kart, turned a corner. Someone was screaming. His wife’s kart was stopped, her hands at her neck. She unbuckled her seatbelt and stood.

“She took maybe two steps, and then collapsed,” he said.

After that, a blur. His sister-in-law removed the Gibbses’ two young sons from the scene. He frantically dialed 911 on his British phone, recalling that stunned young workers at the ride couldn’t remember the park’s address. His wife’s neck and head began to swell.

“You suddenly have a feeling that everything’s not real and that you’re going to start spinning head over heels,” he said. “It’s just impossible to know what to do.”

Court and legal records showed that the go-karts were purchased nine years earlier from a Tennessee park, which cautioned that most “have seasons worth of use on the clutch, bearings and seals.” The tires on Ms. Gibbs’s kart were uncovered, unlike some others, though covering them is not a requirement.

An eyewitness who performed CPR expressed shock that the park appeared unprepared for an emergency and could not provide her with a defibrillator, according to a statement provided to the Gibbses’ law firm.

A 2007 internal memorandum from the park admonished employees to “never admit fault for accidents,” adding, “our common phrase is ‘AJ’s is an at your own risk Fun Park.’”

Jeannie Vogel, a spokeswoman for Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, would not discuss details of the accident or the state’s review. She said the state inspects rides at least annually and can shut down those viewed as dangerous.

After a Freedom of Information request, the state turned over four pages of records related to the accident: notes scrawled by an AJ’s employee, state inspection notices and a brief finding that the park complied with state law and had “warnings about securing loose clothing.” Neither the state nor the park would provide further details; AJ’s promotional material pictured a woman driving a kart with flowing hair and a long necklace.

In the aftermath, facing large American medical bills, Mr. Gibbs, who works as a spokesman for the agrochemical company Syngenta, settled with a holding company connected to the park, ultimately owned by local entrepreneurs Gregory and Lori Van Boxel. There was never a judgment or finding of negligence. He is considering further legal action against the owners.

In a brief phone conversation, Mr. Van Boxel said: “I’m not sure if I can comment on this. I think someone else would be more familiar with the details.” Asked if he knew the details, he said he did not. The park’s incident report says he was informed.

A statement later issued by his law firm said that “our sincere sympathy and compassion remain with those impacted by the accident,” adding that the park had a “strong culture of safety,” but did not answer specific questions.

Mr. Gibbs believes things would have gone differently in Britain, where the national Health and Safety Executive has oversight.

“There’s no agency in the United States that can say to my children, who are American citizens, this is the way in which we worked to protect your mother and keep her safe,” he said. “I’m confident that accident would not have happened here, part because I think we have more stringent regulation,” he added.

At the long-term care center, Mr. Gibbs made his way to his wife’s room, decorated with pictures of family and friends. He gently wiped spittle from her mouth as she stared vacantly from an elevated chair.

“It’s really hardened me,” he said of the accident. “You worry that you lose, in that toughness and hardening process, you lose some emotional flexibility, which I hope will come back.”

He has started collecting local art again, something he and his wife did together.

“I was coming here to visit Rachel and then immediately going back to work and feeling so enraged about things that I thought I’ve got to find another way of making these trips work,” he said, adding that he often just watches “the comings and going of people” at auctions.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it feels like it’s some sort of purpose,” he said, “and also I know it’s something that me and Rachel used to do.”

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