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Family of girl who died on ride at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park files wrongful death lawsuit

Lawsuit claims park was notified twice of prior instances of people not being buckled in
Posted at 12:15 PM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 20:38:59-04

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 Grenwood 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 failed to properly buckle in guests on the ride.

One of those instances was detailed in the report into the September accident from the Colorado Department of Labor’s Division of Oil and Public Safety that was released 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 properly 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, was argued with about whether that was the case, and 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 Wisconsin 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 lawsuit, “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 both 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 park didn't do nearly enough after being warned by these customers," Caplis said in an interview Wednesday. "This is a ride where if somebody is not belted, if a mistake is made, that person is going to die. After the park was warned in 2018 by this witness, clearly the park did not do what it needed to because of what happened here. They simply didn't seatbelt this little girl."

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 their 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.

It says he saw her “battered body” — Estifanos died of blunt-force injuries, according to the coroner, 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 shaft, 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.

In a statement to Denver7 Wednesday afternoon, the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s public relations team said it was aware of the lawsuit, but added it would be inappropriate for them to comment on pending litigation.

"Our hearts go out to the Estifanos family and those impacted by their loss," the park's relations team said in closing remarks.

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 to 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.”

Caplis said in an interview that he does not believe the waiver people have to sign at the park will be a factor in the case because "one cannot waive the recklessness of the park operator."

"Our position is that the waiver will not be a factor in this case because under Colorado law, as you know, you cannot waive recklessness. And as the lawsuit details, there was extreme recklessness on the part of the park," he said. "These are the most loving parents imaginable. They drove four hours to take their baby to the amusement park and this was their first trip after COVID as a family, and the park drops her 110 feet. It's way beyond 'this should never have happened.' This is a case of extreme recklessness where the park had been warned this was happening."

Tom Russell, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said the waiver would absolve the business of negligent conduct but not reckless conduct.

"According to the allegations of the complaint, if indeed they turned off an alarm that was sounding because the seatbelt was not fastened, that's reckless. That's the intentional disregard of a known risk and that will make the release ineffective."

Denver7's Liz Gelardi contributed to this report.