Charges filed in 2016 Schlitterbahn incident

Edited: March 23, 2018, 4:27 PM

A former Schlitterbahn operations director is facing involuntary manslaughter charges following the 2016 death of a 10-year-old boy on what was then the world's tallest water slide, according to a local report.

[*Update: The Schlitterbahn company also is facing criminal charges. Together Tyler Miles and the company face involuntary the manslaughter charge as well as 12 counts of aggravated battery, five counts of aggravated endangerment of a child and two counts of interfering with law enforcement. Go read the indictment. It's the most outrageous legal document I've ever read while covering the theme park industry.]

The Verruckt slide killed Caleb Schwab, the son of a Kansas legislator, when the raft he was on went airborne and struck a support pole that was holding what was intended to be safety netting.

A criminal investigation followed, which apparently has resulted in today's charges.

Replies (23)

March 23, 2018, 12:03 PM

I'll just say it, because there are no real details in the Star Article...speaking strictly from an objective point of view. As sad as this incident is, what exactly is the connection that can be made to levy a felony charge against a single member of upper management? I get that the parents, one who happens to be a state representative who probably has some clout, want to see justice. I'm just unsure on what basis there is to ruin a man's life who didn't design the ride, didn't build the ride, who didn't own the ride, and who wasn't there when the little guy got on the ride.

Of course we haven't heard the whole story, but if no laws were broken, there was no negligence, and all rules and state few as there might have been, were followed, then how can this sort of precedent possibly be allowed to be set?

March 23, 2018, 3:28 PM

Derek, I have to disagree with you here. This incident occurred about 18 months ago, an investigation done and now charges laid. It's not like they've picked some random guy to take the fall for a quick resolution or "justice".

Three elements must be satisfied in order for someone to be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Presumably the man charged was in charge of the ride's construction, or the running of the ride (he was described as an operations director).

This kids death was avoidable, it comes down to whether there was a fault in the design of the ride, or if the safety, maintenance or running of the ride as specified by the manufacturer or designers was not correctly followed by the people responsible (seems to be the case here).

As for ruining a guys life, if he was negligent in his duty to the safety of the patrons then he deserves what he gets. This was a ride where the problem had been identified in testing (with adjustments made to the ride). It went at 65 mile/hour with the safety netting held up by metal hoops (which killed the child) - it was not an unforseeable issue that if something went wrong with this ride, that it would occur like this.

I'm no lawyer, but my brief google search on involuntary manslaughter revealed these criteria;

1. Someone was killed as a result of the defendant's actions. - check

2. The act either was inherently dangerous to others or done with reckless disregard for human life - not a large stretch given the speed of this ride, I think all thrill rides would fill this criteria.

3. The defendant knew or should have known his or her conduct was a threat to the lives of others - this is the bit that needs to be shown in court.

If its going to criminal court, laws were most likely broken. As for the precedent set, taking care of the safety of your patrons is a pretty important rule in running theme/amusement/water parks, so I see no issue here. The implications of this child's death are that either the states need to have much tighter regulations on these rides, or the park management need to take the responsibility for their guests safety. I think if this guy is guilty, it will probably be better for parks because they will need to take the safety of their guests safety even more seriously.

Edited: March 23, 2018, 4:32 PM

The update I posted is pretty damning. It looks like there was a deliberate attempt to cover up the development process of this ride during the investigation, which prompted additional charges.

If what is described in this indictment is true, no water park fan ever ought to visit a Schlitterbahn park ever again. This company would deserve to be put out of business.

Edited: March 23, 2018, 7:49 PM

I believe all parties involved have already settled with Schlitterbahn. This fight is between the state of Kansas and Tyler Miles/Schlitterbahn of KC, Kansas.

Honestly, I don’t think Schlitterbahn has ever had much success in their Kansas location. It is overly expensive and for a long time was fairly bereft of rides. They had big plans to build a water entertainment complex that evaporated shortly after they were announced. And allegedly they were desperate for a big draw so the place could become a vacation destination. Perhaps they were too desperate.

I am not a water park fan, so closing them all doesn’t bother me, but it’s a shame it took such a tragedy to bring this type of alleged incompetence to light. I sure hope similar things aren’t going on at the more heavily regulated theme parks we all love!

March 24, 2018, 7:15 AM

I posted my previous comment before the update with the indictment, so please permit me to adjust a few things. I said that if there was no negligence, and obviously judging from this document, the whole thing reeks of it from top to bottom. If all of this in the indictment is true, then they are telling us

1) Schlitterbahn and it's owners knowingly designed and built a 168 foot waterslide with a bunny hill... without qualified engineers to test the dynamics of the rides G-force affect on riders. They rushed construction and cut corners, and then had to rebuild twice. Then they brought in an engineer after the fact to test speeds, and disregarded the results of the tests showing several rafts going airborne. With all that knowledge, they flirted with not installing a net, and then when they did, they made the supports out of metal and the wall at the end of the too short landing pool out of concrete.

2)The designer/builder signed off on the ride as certified by ASTM standards when it clearly wasn't on many counts, and there was no oversight to hold them accountable.

3)The operations manual was substandard, and didn't address the possibility of rafts going airborne, nor advise operators on protocol, nor advise on standard repair procedures.

4) They opened the ride anyway, and ignored the report submitted a month after opening by the engineer that tested the raft speeds that stated the ride was unfinished and unsafe.

5) The 14 documented injuries (and who knows how many undocumented ones) were all a direct result of the flawed design, reports were ignored and in some cases destroyed or lost and employees were coached on what to say.

6) Despite countless instances of written and oral complaints, warnings, and problems from guests and staff over the entire life of the ride, operation was allowed to continue. Multiple reports of brake failure were reported just days before the kid's death, and there was no shutdown and no repair.

7) After the death, the defendant(s) attempted to cover up the extent of the problems, and hid evidence from investigators, which amplifies the whole thing.

If it's all true, throw the book at the lot of them and not just Miles. I'm sure that nobody wanted this to happen, but by this report it appears evident that there was negligence from day one of the design phase and that from the start they were frankly, playing fast and loose with the well being of their customers...all for the sake of national attention. Looks like they definitely have what they were looking for now.

March 24, 2018, 9:03 AM

Thanks for the update Robert and for the summary Derek. This makes me sick to my stomach.
I hope this serves as a real wake up call to the industry. I've always felt like design firms and operators did a good and ethical job of building and operating attractions. This proves that is not always the case. I sure hope this ensures nothing like this ever happens again.

March 24, 2018, 9:23 AM

At first, I was a little confused on these charges as they seemed excessive. Thanks to TPI, I know that there appears that these charges do hold water (no pun intended)

If true, this might be one of the worst cases of Theme Park greed I have ever seen.

However, I just hope the prosecution can prove these crimes. They seem like they might be a little tough to prove all of it.

March 25, 2018, 7:25 AM

The criminal case article was picked by the AP, which ran in my local paper. It seemed there was a desire to impress the producers of a Travel Channel show, that I recall watching. It should be pointed out that you are not dealing with civil litigation here where lawyers can just allege anything, but this is a criminal lawsuit where there has been an investigation by law enforcement. Based on that fact alone, it would give you extreme cause for concern as long as any current management is in place.

Edited: March 25, 2018, 7:59 AM

>>>Schlitterbahn and it's owners knowingly designed and built a 168 foot waterslide with a bunny hill...

I think the biggest problem is they didn't *Design* it at all. They simply built it.

>>>I hope this serves as a real wake up call to the industry. I've always felt like design firms and operators did a good and ethical job of building and operating attractions. This proves that is not always the case

They didn't use a design firm. The Owner built on a trial and error method, no mathematics at all - and when it was clear there was a fatal flaw, they didn't do thing 1 about it.

Trial and error is fine for Roller Coaster Tycoon, its not for the real world.

March 25, 2018, 8:30 AM

I read the entire document, jaw dropped more as I continued to read. This was an abuse of the trust of everyone that went to that park or rode that ride.

I'd like to think this is far outside the norm. I know that rides at the big parks are vetted via computer modeling, physical modeling, and extensive safety testing. The ? parks are these smaller operations. Schlitterbahn shouldn't have been able to get this into production, but they did. How? How can we prevent this in the future?

March 25, 2018, 5:23 PM

I would think it would be easy DBCooper. We know from that recent fair ride incident that fair rides have a regulation and inspection regeme by government bodies. Why was there no regulator who could inspect before guests on it to ask "why doesn't this match the guidelines for this type of ride?"

March 25, 2018, 9:57 PM

This kind of oversight and greed was one of the main themes in the book, Jurassic Park.

Yeah, the movies are awesome, but the actual book kind of delved into multiple issues including building something for fame and not testing it properly before the attractions kill people (sound familiar). Yes, genetics and cloning are a huge part (as with the movie), but the book version of John Hammond is WAY different than the delightful old man in the movie. Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale on the theme park industry as well.

March 28, 2018, 6:09 AM

So all in all, it seems they have taken a page out of the "Action Park" playbook.

April 3, 2018, 10:58 AM

It seems to me that these charges have received a ton of media attention, perhaps moreso than the original tragedy. Now one of them has been arrested at DFW Airport. I don't know if the brand can survive this round of bad press, let alone a third round once the criminal case(s) are underway. Even without diving into the horrifying minutiae of the legal charges, the headlines paint a scary-enough picture for any parent to perhaps destroy this business.

April 3, 2018, 12:03 PM

Maybe Sea World should buy Schlitterbahn. Its not like their name and reputation could get any worse. If anything it could help Sea World. In all seriousness, I don’t think Sea World could afford it even now. But hopefully someone does buy Schlitterbahn, changes the name, and fixes their shattered reputation.

April 4, 2018, 6:34 AM

I've been keeping an eye on this one, some things just aren't adding up. Now that the media has a hold of it and is spinning it how they do, it's been a little easier to follow. Some things don't add up to me though.

It's been established that the slide didn't always work like it should and that not near enough attention was paid to maintenance and design. What has not been established though, is that if this is considered a deadly weapon by the state of Kansas...which it is according to the charges, then the state of Kansas is complicit in all of the injuries and the boy's death because the ride was allowed to operate in plain sight for two seasons. Further, if it was considered deadly from the start, there's no insurance company in the world that would in their right mind put a policy behind it. I wonder what their criteria was for approving that policy.

That doesn't mean that Schlitterbahn isn't responsible because they are, but we are now talking about 2nd degree murder, manslaughter, and aggravated assault charges. With those charges come the burden of proving intent and malice in addition to negligence. I have a hard time believing that those charges will actually hold up when all sides of this are presented, unless it's a packed court. Will people really believe that those charged wanted people to get hurt and die?

On top of that, I also saw where the state is now conducting an audit of the company. The political and media hammers are being swung with vengeance right now. Anyone else wonder if this kind of action would be taken had the victim been a random child and not the son of a politician?

Edited: April 4, 2018, 7:53 AM

@Derek - I think part of the problem is the documentary footage of the design and construction of the slide. I can't remember if it aired on Discovery or Travel Channel, but the design and testing of Verrukt was portrayed as very unprofessional. I had never seen anything like it before, with designers and engineers testing a ride that obviously was never going to work perfectly every time. They showed footage of the rafts flying off the hill with water dummies in them during the initial testing (before the redesign), and you could see and hear the designers laughing about it (and Keystone Cops-like music playing in the background). I'm kind of ashamed that I laughed along with them as they kept showing raft after raft flying off the massive airtime hill. The entire design of the slide seemed preposterous, but I had assumed math and science would eventually take over to add some safety factors to the attraction.

The program also documented the process Schlitterbahn went through to re-profile the hill and change some of the dynamics of the slide, but even after the redesign, rafts were still dangerously lifting off the slide, which is why the nets were added. The documentary aired before the ride ever opened to the public, so it was assumed that they fixed all of the issues that were plaguing the slide before guests were allowed to ride.

It's clear that the entire process for the design and construction of Verrukt was a "trial by error" and "fly by the seat of your pants" operation. As far as insurance, the ride was certified by a professional engineer (and theoretically state inspectors), and an insurance company, regardless of how dangerous something looks, will take the opinion of a P.E. and other licensed professionals as law. The same goes for the Operations Director, who the engineers and ride designers worked for. The real question is was there some sort of negligence or malfeasance by Schlitterbahn and the park's management to open and run this attraction. That's what a jury will have to decide, but based on that Discovery/Travel Channel documentary that I saw about the construction of Verrukt, I think the plaintiffs at the very least have a case.

Edited: April 5, 2018, 7:12 AM

Understand, again, we are not talking typical plaintiffs as in people suing for money damages, which I am sure they are as well. We are talking about the government prosecuting people for criminal offenses, which means there has been a criminal investigation that has been completed. That is two completely different types of lawsuits. That means there already has been probable cause established by witness testimony and evidence that a crime has occurred. Again, different than a plaintiff simply having a case. While not every person charged may get convicted, this should give you serious concerns to go into a water park owned by this company, and I agree it should call into question how these attractions are inspected and certified.

April 4, 2018, 2:37 PM

@Russell, yes I understand about the documentary. Still though that’s made for TV with an emphasis on the shock factor. In the end they reprofiled the ride and it worked a lot of the time, when all of the safety mechanisms were operating correctly. I believe that the design should have been more sound, and based on the report that there was indeed negligence.

My point is that there’s a difference between negligence and malicious intent, which is what many of the charges levied are associated with. I do think that justice in some amount is merited, but 2nd degree murder is not appropriate, and if we are being honest, not able to really be proven. In that instance they would be found not guilty. Negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter might be more appropriate in order to get a conviction.

Still though, you have the fact that the very people (the state) charging them with malice based crimes, allowed this high profile ride shown on the Travel channel to operate with no oversight or external inspection. Would that not be malicious in itself if we are applying the same standard across the board. think prosecutors are overshooting on some of this. Again, even with negligence obviously’s really hard for me to imagine the designers actually creating and spending the money to build this ride, and opening/operating it with true malicious intent.

April 5, 2018, 7:21 AM

But, Derek, what are the elements of murder two in Kansas? It likely is not intentional conduct. I have not looked, but it could be something like extreme reckless, and just because it worked most of the time is certainly small comfort to the number of people that were injured. I will agree with you as to the documentary and news coverage, however. They are there to get viewers. What is important is what the evidence is, and nobody here has seen it outside of court documents, which look extremely, extremely bad. If all allegations are accurate, then there is a problem in the industry. You should never be able to design and build something like that without engineers and viable scientific safety tests. Further, once there are actual injuries, there should be protocols to follow to prevent further injuries.

April 6, 2018, 6:53 AM

Findlaw gives Kansas 2nd degree murder as:

Killing a human being either:
Intentionally, or
Unintentionally but recklessly under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to the value of human life

So yes, there is a reckless option, and that’s what they’ll be arguing.

That said, in Much if the US what to charge someone with is part of plea bargaining tactics. The prosecutor may be going in “high” with the expectation they can make the accused accept a deal for manslaughter

April 7, 2018, 10:23 PM

It's there to argue, but still a pretty tough position. There's a line between negligence, reckless, and malicious. Murder 2 is basically Murder 1 without the premeditation..aka act committed with malice aforethought but no advance plan, but both are intentional acts, and intent is usually the burden of proof for murder 2. Awful tough to prove intent to harm to me in this case.

Charging the guy who designed the ride and built it two years prior with murder, and then charging the ops manager who was responsible for maintenance, repairs, keeping the ride in safe working order...or closing it if it wasn't...with involuntary manslaughter doesn't add up to me. Couldn't it be said that the other way around would be more appropriate? if it was appropriate at all?

I do think the prosecutor is going in high, but I don't think it was to get a deal. This was the son of a Kansas politician who was killed on elected official day at the waterpark. That carries weight whether it's admitted or not. We now have not guilty pleas in, so the overreach could at this point hamper justice from being dispensed. I can see a negligent homicide or an involuntary manslaughter charge sticking, but not a murder 2.

Regardless of what happens with these trials, it's pretty clear if the statements in the indictment are true, that Schlitterbahn and those parties are responsible. Unlike the trial courtroom, the court of public opinion is not bound by law, reason, facts, or burden of proof... and it's the decision by that court which will determine whether this company survives or not.

April 8, 2018, 7:17 PM

It could also be that they are trying their best to scare the heck out of both of them so that they can get one to roll over on the other... One turns state's evidence in order to hammer the other to death.

It could also be that the politician is pulling every possible string that they can get their hands on to get the DA to throw everything and the kitchen sink at them. Although this doesn't make much sense since a settlement was already made on the civil side.

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