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Family of girl who died on ride at Colorado amusement park files wrongful death lawsuit

Lawsuit claims park was notified twice of prior instances of people not being buckled in
wongel estifanose glenwood caverns death
Posted at 12:43 PM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 15:43:06-04

DENVER – Attorneys for the family of the 6-year-old girl who died after falling 110 feet on a ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park because she was not buckled in filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the park Wednesday.

The lawsuit claims that the park was told twice — in 2018 and 2019 — of instances in which operators of the Haunted Mine Drop ride on which 6-year-old Wongel Estifanos was killed nearly dispatched the ride when other people were not buckled in, which is what a state investigation found occurred on Sept. 5 when Estifanos died.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Denver District Court by Greenwood Village-based attorney Dan Caplis and other attorneys at his firm. The attorneys are seeking a finding from the court that Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park was responsible for the felonious killing of Estifanos “caused by multiple acts that constitute a reckless disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the acts would cause death.”

The suit says the park breached its duty and caused Estifanos’s death because of “gross negligence” and that it ignored — and failed to provide to the state investigators — emails from two different guests in 2018 and 2019 who reported that operators of the ride were unable to buckle in guests on the ride properly.

One of those instances was detailed in the report on the September accident from the Colorado Department of Labor’s Division of Oil and Public Safety that was released on Sept. 24.

That report discussed an email forwarded to the division by the Garfield County coroner, who was emailed in 2019 by a person who said he had sat on his seatbelt and wasn’t correctly buckled in as the ride operator was about to dispatch the ride, which pulls a floor out from underneath riders’ feet and drops them down the mine shaft more than 100 feet.

According to the report and the newly filed lawsuit, the man told the operator he wasn’t buckled in and argued whether that was the case. Eventually, the operator realized they were wrong and buckled the man in.

“During the whole ride, all I could think of was what if I didn’t insist on [redacted] checking again? I had no idea what the ride was. I didn’t know the floor was going to drop. This could have ended in tragedy for everyone,” the email said.

The lawsuit says the man had also sent a similar email to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in August 2019. It also details another report made in 2018 to the park about another instance in which the ride was nearly dispatched when someone was not buckled in.

In that instance, according to the lawsuit, a woman emailed the park on July 25, 2018, telling them she had taken her 6-year-old child on the ride and that the ride operators did not buckle in a teenage boy who was also on the ride. The lawsuit claims the woman screamed at the operators that the teenager was not bucked in and that they came back and apologized while fastening the belts.

The lawsuit says the park’s human resources manager emailed the woman back the same day acknowledging the incident and allegedly saying, according to the case, “I know this doesn’t excuse us from ensuring all belts have been secured … I can assure you that this email will allow us to retrain and continue to assure the utmost safe operation of this ride. … Again, I appreciate you bringing this to our attention, and we will take any necessary steps to improve the safety of our operation.”

The lawsuit claims that the 2018 and 2019 incidents involved the “same reckless failure” that caused Estifanos’s death.

It also claims that though Colorado investigators ordered the park to produce all complaints made regarding the Haunted Mine Drop, it did not disclose the 2019 complaint, citing an email system issue, nor the 2018 complaint, which the lawsuit claims attorneys learned of after receiving a call from someone who had seen news coverage about the case.

The lawsuit claims that since the park knew there were prior issues with operators not properly buckling people in, it breached its duty to Estifanos’s family and others in protecting their safety.

The state report found Estifanos was sitting on top of her two seatbelts when the ride was dispatched and that operator error and a lack of proper training on operating the ride were to blame.

The lawsuit says she was with her mother, father, 2-year-old brother, uncle, aunt, and children at the park that day. Estifanos, her uncle, two of his children, his wife, and another relative went on the Haunted Mine Drop, and after it was dispatched, the uncle realized Estifanos was not in her seat.

According to the coroner, it says he saw her “battered body” — Estifanos died of blunt-force injuries and suffered fractures, brain injuries, and internal and external injuries, according to the suit — at the bottom of the mine shaft. He tried to get to her, but the ride brought them back to the top of the post, the lawsuit states.

The attorneys for the family are asking for the court to grant them wrongful death damages, both monetary and non-monetary, expenses, a post-trial finding of felonious killing on behalf of the park, and pre-and post-judgment interest, costs, and attorney’s fees.

The Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s public relations team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit Wednesday morning.

Caplis’s firm issued a statement saying Estifanos’s parents – Estifanos Dagne and Rahel Estifanos – filed the lawsuit as “the first step in their battle for the full truth and full accountability from the amusement park.”

“They will use this civil action to force the full truth to be disclosed to them and the public,” the firm said in a statement. “Their mission is to protect other families by holding all who are responsible for the killing of their daughter fully accountable and by sending a loud and clear message to the entire amusement park industry.”

Denver7 is expected to speak further with Caplis on Wednesday.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Blair Miller at KMGH first reported this story.