The goal was always to look out for James T. Hackemer’s two young girls.
A seven-figure settlement of his wrongful-death suit against the Darien Lake amusement park where he fell from a roller coaster should go a long way toward doing that.
Lawyers for the two sides said Hackemer’s daughters, Kaelynn and Addison, both under age 10, will be the primary beneficiaries of a recent settlement of the double amputee’s federal court lawsuit.
Hackemer, 29, of Gowanda, a decorated Iraq War veteran, died after he was ejected from a 208-foot-high roller coaster during a family outing in July 2011.
“Darien Lake and its management are relieved to settle this case,” said Hugh M. Russ III, a lawyer for the amusement park. “And while they admit no liability, they did feel obligated to help care for Mr. Hackemer’s two children.”
Hackemer’s family argued in the suit that park employees violated Darien Lake’s safety rules by allowing a double amputee on the “Ride of Steel” coaster.
Lawyers said they could not comment on the settlement amount – the agreement is confidential – but a source close to the case said the girls will benefit from a structured annuity program with a low seven-figure value.
Hackemer lost his legs and left hip to a roadside bomb while serving as a U.S. Army sergeant in Iraq in 2008.
The settlement was recently approved by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
“The object of the litigation was always to look out for two daughters who lost a father,” said Denis J. Bastible, a lawyer for Hackemer’s estate.
In the days after Hackemer’s fatal fall, his family shied away from blaming anyone, including Darien Lake, for what happened as the coaster plunged down that last hill.
Three weeks later, and after a state Department of Labor investigation cited “operator error” for the accident, the family sued in State Supreme Court.
The suit, which was later moved to federal court, accused Darien Lake’s owners and managers – CNL Income Darien Lake and DLFE Management Co. – of recklessness and negligence.
Hackemer had survived a roadside bomb in Iraq three years earlier and almost died in the field and again on the operating table. His death came as he was fighting to reclaim his civilian life.
Riding on his favorite childhood roller coaster was just one more activity he wanted to resume.
“It’s a very sad case,” said Russ. “He had two small children, and while he had obviously sustained some really horrible injuries from the war, he was trying to rehabilitate himself and turn his life around. And then this unfortunate accident happened.”
Soon after the accident, Genesee County sheriff’s investigators determined that Hackemer either didn’t see or ignored rules posted on the ride that said riders “must have two legs” and “sufficient body strength.”
Investigators said Hackemer also was offered a pamphlet detailing the requirements for disabled people going on certain rides in the park.
They said park employees also failed to question Hackemer about his disability when he showed up at the entrance to the Ride of Steel.
The result was fatal.
Hackemer, like 25 other riders, was strapped in his car with a fabric seat belt and a T-shaped lap bar when the eight-car coaster plunged down the last hill on the ride, and he fell out.
As he was falling, he hit the front of the car and then the track before landing about 135 feet below. An autopsy determined the cause of death to be blunt-force trauma.
It wasn’t the first serious accident on the Ride of Steel, a $12 million improvement billed as the tallest roller coaster east of the Mississippi when it debuted in 1999. It has since been exceeded in height by several newer coasters.
Shortly after the ride opened, an Olean man fell out of his seat 10 feet to the ground as the ride was making its final approach.
The park, which had a different owner at the time, later claimed that the man weighed more than 300 pounds and was too large for the seat’s lap-restraint bar to engage. The park later added safety belts.