April 10, 2014

NC State Fair’s Vortex incident becomes high-profile lawsuit

A legal battle that could take years began Thursday, nearly six months after a horrible malfunction sent people flying from an amusement ride at the N.C. State Fair. Four family members who were aboard the Vortex filed a lawsuit Thursday against a ride worker, the owner of the Vortex and two midway companies.

A legal battle that could take years began Thursday, nearly six months after a horrible malfunction sent people flying from an amusement ride at the N.C. State Fair.

Four family members who were aboard the Vortex ride filed a lawsuit Thursday against a ride worker, the owner of the Vortex and two midway companies.

The Gorham family is represented by Willie E. Gary, a flamboyant Florida attorney with North Carolina ties. The lawsuit seeks $150 million, mainly in punitive damages, Gary said during a Thursday news conference outside the Durham County Courthouse.

Alongside him was Kisha Gorham, who has said little publicly as she has led her family through the aftermath of the disaster. She was aboard the Vortex with her husband, Anthony Gorham, her 14-year-old son, Justen Hunter, and a niece, Shykema Dempsey. All four were trying to get off the Vortex when it abruptly spun back to life and whirled them skyward.

Anthony Gorham, who had the most severe physical injuries, suffered permanent damage to his brain, neck and spinal cord and is unable to make his own legal decisions, Gary said. He spent almost four months in the hospital, and Gary said he had another brain operation less than two days before the suit was filed.

The lawsuit seeks compensation from four defendants, including:

• Powers Great American Midways, also known as Amusements of Rochester Inc. The company has long managed midways at the N.C. State Fair, bringing in rides and games, and contracting with smaller companies for some services. Powers hired a smaller company to bring in the Vortex.
• Family Attractions Amusement, the Georgia-based company that owned, operated and insured the Vortex, according to the lawsuit. A representative for the company argued Thursday that the company “does not own or operate the Vortex,” though state officials have associated the two for months.

Family Attractions has been described by the state as a sub-contractor for Powers Great American Midways. The company was not associated with any other rides at the fair.

• Timothy Dwayne Tutterrow, a Georgia man accused by the Wake County Sheriff’s Office of tampering with safety systems on the Vortex, possibly allowing the machine to operate before safety restraints were locked. He is either an employee or agent of Family Attractions, according to the lawsuit. He faces a criminal charge of assault with a deadly weapon, which can apply in cases of criminal negligence.
• Joshua Macaroni, a Georgia man whose parents own Family Attractions, and who himself owns the Vortex, according to the company. He also has been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, though authorities haven’t detailed how he might have tampered with the ride.

The lawsuit claims both Macaroni and Tutterrow “negligently altered, jimmy-rigged, and re-wired circuitry controls” to get passengers on and off quickly and increase profits for the companies named in the lawsuit.

“This case is about the oldest sin known to man, and that’s greed, the almighty dollar,” Gary said.

A representative for Family Attractions claimed Thursday that Joshua Macaroni received a “flat fee” to bring the ride to the fair and was not paid based on the number of riders it drew or days it ran.

The suit contends that Amusements of Rochester didn’t properly oversee the ride’s staff. It also argues that the two companies failed to ensure that the Vortex’s operators had the proper training and skill to maintain the ride and prevent tampering. The suit describes Tutterrow and Macaroni as “untrained, unskilled, non-certified” and novices.

“Defendant Powers and Defendant Family Attractions were ‘enablers’ and ‘aiders and abetters’, respectively, to Defendant Macaroni’s and Defendant Tutterrow’s egregious and gross misconduct,” the suit says.

The lawsuit also accuses Family Attractions of filing documents with state officials before the fair indicating that it owned the ride, then reversing course after the accident by claiming to the state that it didn’t own the ride.

Gregory Brown, an attorney for Family Attractions, said the company didn’t own the Vortex, wasn’t operating it and didn’t employ anyone running it. Family Attractions’ owners, Dominic and Ruby Macaroni, did not come to the N.C. State Fair this year, Brown said.

If Family Attractions’ name appeared on state documents, he said, it was a mistake.

“I think it’s more that because it’s a family-owned business, and it’s an industry that’s very much based on personal relationships rather than formal legal documents,” Brown said. “I think that there may be items that had Family Attractions’ name on it when in fact Family Attractions wasn’t involved.”

The four family members, who had come to the fair on the day of its annual food drive, suffered an array of injuries and psychological trauma, Gary said. The family’s medical bills may pile up for 40 or 50 years and could eventually exceed $30 million, he said.

The family was seeking substantially more than that because it wanted to make sure nothing similar happens again, Gary said. His mission, he said, is to bring the defendants to their knees.

“I know that many of you may think, ‘Well, it’s a $150 million lawsuit, and it’s all about the money,’ ” he said. “But it’s not about the money. It’s about sending a message to these defendants, a message that says, ‘No matter who you are, how big you are, how much money you have or what your resources are, you cannot put profits over the safety of people.’ And this is clearly what happened in this case.”

Gary, a member of the Shaw University board of trustees and a major donor to the university, is known for winning a host of large judgments – and for a flashy lifestyle.

His company website shows him posing with a pair of Rolls-Royce cars and boasts of an $11 million refit, including an 18-carat gold sink, on one of his company planes – a converted Boeing 737 passenger jet he calls “the Wings of Justice II.” The website also says that he has won more than 150 judgments of more than $1 million each.

Gary and his North Carolina co-counsel in the case, Mike Jones of Durham, filed the suit on behalf of the family in Durham County Superior Court.

Gary said he picked Durham rather than Wake County, where the fair is located and the Gorhams live, because he and Jones attended law school at N.C. Central University and wanted to involve law students from the school in the massive amount of research involved in pursuing such a case to give the students experience and to pursue the case economically.

“We’re taking on some giants,” he said. “They have the money, the power and the resources.”

A representative of Powers Great American Midways could not be reached for comment. In a written release, a spokeswoman for Family Attractions offered condolences to the Gorham family.

“As Mr. Gary acknowledged, this was a tragic accident,” Joyce Fitzpatrick wrote in an email. “Our hearts go out to the Gorham family.”

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