Louisiana Fire Marshal Added to Suit For Carnival Ride Accident

The mother of two teens who were injured by a carnival ride in 2011, has added the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office to her negligence lawsuit.  Shona Simon filed suit last October against St. Helena Parish School Board and Mac’s Carnivals and Attractions.

Simon’s  13-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son were thrown off a ride called the “Zipper” as they were in the process of exiting. The siblings suffered fractures and had to be air lifted to Baton Rouge for treatment.

The carnival was held on the grounds of St. Helena Central High School in Greensburg in 2011. Apparently a guard on the ride’s safety switch was missing and the ride’s parking brake had been removed. According to reports, the ride moved without warning as the siblings were exiting.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office was added to the suit because an inspection of the ride apparently missed the safety defects.

Following the incident a New Orleans watchdog organization, Metropolitan Crime Commission, publically accused Louisiana State Fire Marshall Butch Browning of concealing details about missing safety equipment in his report. The group claimed the report wrongfully blamed operator error to gloss over the failure to notice the safety defects.

In April in the midst of the allegations, Fire Marshal Browning opted to step down to take another job. State Police investigated the allegations of a cover up and found no wrongdoing. They determined that the Fire Marshal’s Office was only responsible for conducting a cursory safety inspection to ensure the ride was located away from electrical lines and trees. The Fire Marshal’s inspectors were not responsible to conduct a full mechanical inspection.

Fire Marshal Browning has since returned to his position as State Fire Marshal. Here is more on the story.

The case poses some interesting questions for fire inspectors and fire service leaders. When we conduct an inspection – whether of a building, an industrial site, or in this case a carnival ride – do we send an implicit message to others that we have deemed the inspected location to be “safe”? How do we protect ourselves from peoples’ expectations that differ from what our capabilities are?

In this case both the watch dog group and the plaintiff assume that fire inspection personnel are trained to conduct a full mechanical inspection of a complex piece of equipment. That is like assuming a plumbing inspector knows how to conduct an electrical inspection, or an OSHA inspector knows how to inspect a 737 before it takes off.

Clarifying the scope of an inspection with the owner/inspectee (in this case the carnival owner) is a logical first step – but in this case it probably would not be enough. Perhaps the safest solution is to insist on the simultaneous (or at least coordinated/supplimental) inspection by others who have the proper level of expertise as a condition of conducting the fire inspection.

Definitely something that fire marshals and fire chiefs need to think through when called upon to conduct inspections of all types – and particularly with unusual devices like carnival rides.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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