PORT TOWNSEND — Legal maneuvering has begun over a fall from a Ferris wheel during the Port Townsend Rhododendron Festival that could generate $1 million in medical bills.
In anticipation of a lawsuit, the company that owns the Ferris wheel ride that three Port Townsend residents fell from May 18 while it was in operation filed a petition Tuesday in Jefferson County Superior Court to guarantee the testimony of its own employees, who are in the U.S. on temporary visas.
Personal injury lawyer Ashton Dennis of Tacoma represents the boy and two women who fell from one of the ride’s gondolas.
He estimated they fell 10 to 20 feet.
“I would expect medical expenses in this case to be closer to seven figures than six,” Dennis said.
A court hearing on the petition is set for 1 p.m. June 23.
Defense attorney Pat Buchanan of Seattle represents Portland, Ore.-based Funtastic Traveling Shows, the carnival operator and owner of the Phoenix Ferris Wheel.
“It is expected that claims will be brought against Petitioner for personal injury,” Buchanan said in her court filing.
The petition seeks to guarantee that three Funtastic ride operators will give depositions on their observations of the mishap and details of their interactions with the Ferris wheel riders: Susan “Shawn” Swartwood, 59; Crystal Groth, 47; and their son, Mikhail Groth-Swartwood, 8.
Dennis said Swartwood, discharged Thursday after a week at Harborview Medical Center, was recuperating at a Port Townsend rehabilitation facility with “head-to-toe trauma” after suffering facial contusions and bruises, as well as skull, ankle and collarbone fractures, Dennis said.
Groth has left thigh soreness after falling on that side of her body, Dennis said.
She and Mikhail were treated at Jefferson Healthcare hospital and released.
Dennis said Mikhail landed on top of Groth.
“Her instincts are what saved him,” Dennis said.
Groth told police “she fell with Mikhail and landed on Susan,” according to a police report.
Multiple witnesses have said Groth “in all likelihood” saved Mikhail from serious injury or death, Dennis said.
Buchanan said Tuesday that she filed the petition to ensure that Victor A. Melchior Mota, Alfredo Ortiz Hernandez and Manuel Alejandro Garcia Garcia can be deposed before their H-1B visas expire and before the men return to their home country of Mexico.
The federal H-1B program allows American companies to temporarily hire foreign workers.
Buchanan said the carnival season ends this fall, while a civil case against Funtastic could take a year to 18 months before going to trial, a typical lag between an injury incident and a trial.
Depositions could be taken in July, Buchanan said.
Her filing was “very unusual,” Dennis said.
Normally such requests are made when a witness is dying and testimony must be preserved for a jury, he said.
“Essentially, Funtastic is saying [the three men] are moving to Mexico and we will not be able to find them afterward,” he said.
“Most of the time, depositions take place well after litigation has commenced.”
He said his clients have not made any decision on a lawsuit.
Buchanan said her filing was not that unusual.
“What I am doing is affording Ashton the opportunity to interview folks,” she said.
“He doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to.”
Dennis said he had asked Funtastic to help with medical expenses.
Buchanan said she forwarded the request to Funtastic’s insurance carrier.
Buchanan said an insurance investigator licensed by the state Department of Labor and Industries — whose Ferris wheel inspection was paid for by Funtastic — “found no obvious mechanical problems” with the ride.
“Both the police reports and the insurance investigator indicated no fault on behalf of Funtastic,” Buchanan added.
“I surmise that their response will be that they will likely wait for a determination of fault, and so far, the only fault determination is by the police and the state, who seem to not be attributing fault to Funtastic,” she said.
“Fault would determine who is responsible for paying the medical expenses.”
Police reports issued last week consist of eyewitness statements, police synopses of those statements and a three-sentence report by safety inspector Richard Spromberg, who “found everything OK” about the Ferris wheel ride when he inspected it after the mishap.
Funtastic President Ron Burback has suggested that one of the occupants was standing up in the gondola in violation of a posted warning in the compartment, citing eyewitness accounts.
Groth told police they “were taking a couple of selfies” when the gondola began to tip upside-down and that all three occupants were sitting when the gondola tipped over.
Dennis said Tuesday that an exit side-door on the gondola was jammed, tipping over rather than swinging freely as the Ferris wheel kept going around.
Buchanan said the Ferris wheel was manufactured without seat belts, which could not be added by the purchaser without voiding the warranty.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].