$12,000,000 & $2,000,000 Premises Liability Verdicts
The Bungee Jump Case
It was during the evening on August 10, 1993. It had just started to rain at the bungee jump in North Myrtle Beach, SC. Surely, they would cancel the jump. Yet, the operator kept his finger on the power button controlling the lifting device.
The jump cage containing two teenaged boys – a “jump master” and a “jumper” – continued to rise toward the night sky. The operator squinted. It was hard looking straight up into the rain. He wanted to release the power button and stop the cage before it hit the top of the 160- foot-tall “arch.”
Yes, it looked like the steel-framed Arch of St. Louis, an inverted horseshoe rising above the beachfront. It had been designed and built by a Texas firm. It came equipped with a hydraulic powered “crawlevator,” a cog-and-chain lifting device that would pull a jump cage up the underside of the arch to the appropriate jumping height.
As designed, stopping at the correct location above the ground was not hard since the controls were located in the cage, accessible to the jump master. If you were going to bungee jump out of the cage, you would want to make sure your take-off point was high enough off the ground. One hundred fifty feet was adequate.
But on this rainy night, the crawlevator was not in service. It had been leaking hydraulic fluid and malfunctioning. That was bad for business, especially right in the middle of the lucrative summer tourist season. In desperation, the owners found a local shrimper who agreed to install a winch at the base of the arch. It had a solitary 3/8 inch cable. The shrimper hired some locals to climb the arch and thread the cable around a pulley at the top. They brought the free end down to the ground and attached it to the jump cage. Now the winch, with hand controls on the ground, could lift the cage to the jump height. The owners were back in business.
But the rain made visibility bad. The operator kept his finger on the power button even after the cage with the two boys traveled well past the jump height. The cage went higher, being pulled upward as the cable wrapped around the rotating drum of the winch. Finally, the cage hit the underside of the arch and stopped dead. But the winch kept pulling.
Tremendous strain developed on the small lifting cable. Without relieving the tension the cable would eventually fail and break. The scenario is well understood and actually has a name: two-blocking. Unfortunately, the bungee jump winch system had no safety devices of any kind. The system two-blocked. The cable ripped apart. The cage fell to the ground. Both boys were killed in front of a crowd of people, including the parents of one of the boys. I was a young lawyer. I tried the case against the owners and the shrimper in federal court. One issue was to find individual liability and not simply get a verdict against a defunct corporation.
We received a $12 million verdict against the individuals. I tried a second case in state court against the South Carolina Department of Labor, the responsible regulatory agency. There, a major hurdle was overcoming multiple immunities enjoyed by the state. We received a $2 million verdict. The verdict was affirmed on appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court. I became close to the families of both boys.
Fast forward to July 2018. I received a text from Mary, the mother of Zak, one of the boys who died. She asked what I was doing that coming August 10. Of course, I knew immediately what the date meant. It had been seared into my brain for years. She said the family was planning a 25th anniversary gathering to celebrate the life and remember the death of her son. She asked would I come and join them in Indianapolis.
She was inviting me to stay for the weekend and to make it a surprise for her husband Mike. Yes, of course I would come. When I landed in Indianapolis, I texted Mary and asked what time should I come to the house. She suggested arriving in a couple of hours when Mike would be home.
My phone rang. It was Mike. Getting a call from him was not too unusual. He would call me over the years. He mentioned the 25th anniversary. “Wish you could be here,” he said, adding he hoped one day to come to Columbia and surprise me. I replied, “Right back at you.” Obviously, Mary had kept the secret. And so had I. It was funny when Mike walked into the kitchen and saw someone standing by the window. By the look on his face, he clearly was confused. The person he was seeing couldn’t be who he thought since he had just got off the phone with that person. And that person was in Columbia, SC. Or was he? He finally recognized me. We hugged. We both were overwhelmed.
I spent the weekend in Indianapolis and reconnected with folks I had met years before. There were a number of people who had participated in one or both of the trials as witnesses. Someone said to me, “Everyone knows who you are. You’re the lawyer.” I realized the special place that had been created for me. We ate huge meals and told stories. We laughed. We cried. We remembered. I came away confirming in my mind what an extraordinary family I got to represent. I felt honored the family had included their lawyer in this intimate gathering.
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