Magic Mountain Ruling Paves Way For Class Action
By AMANDA BRONSTAD
Danny Everett was in line for his last ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain when a family outing in the fall of 1998 turned nasty.
Everett, who is black, stepped out to let family members into the line for the Colossus roller coaster and was approached by a park employee who claimed he had violated Magic Mountain policy by cutting the line.
He was asked to leave, and after a security guard grabbed his arm a fracas ensued. Punched and kicked, Everett was held chained to a bench for two hours before being arrested for battery.
Acquitted of those charges, Everett sued the park, alleging, among other things, civil rights violations.
His was just one of dozens of cases filed in the past few years against the Valencia theme park alleging that employees regularly discriminate against black and Hispanic patrons. To date, none of the suits has been successful.
But on Nov. 14, a judge in the state's 2nd Appellate District ruled that Everett can use the park's own statistics in his effort to prove it systematically discriminated against blacks, the first ruling to allow patrons to use such statistics in court.
In addition to ruling in favor of Everett, the decision thrilled local attorneys heading most of the other suits.
"What (the ruling) does is make it impossible for Magic Mountain to avoid placing before juries the racially disproportionate impact of their policies," said Paul Hoffman, partner at Venice-based Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP, a plaintiff's attorney in a pending class action against the park. "That is evidence to show they're engaged in racial discrimination."
Plaintiff's lawyers, attempting to establish a class, are claiming that more than 10,000 black and Hispanic patrons of the park have been discriminated against by its employees.
Racial tensions at Magic Mountain are not new. In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California settled with the park on four discrimination lawsuits it had filed. As part of the settlement, Magic Mountain agreed to revise its screening guidelines, which it had stepped up after a knife fight involving gang members resulted in six people getting stabbed in 1985.
"Magic Mountain's position is they have historically had a problem with criminal activity in their park, mainly dealing with the endemic nature of gangs in the L.A. area," said Michael Amaro, a partner at Prindle Decker & Amaro LLP representing Magic Mountain. "They've created objective screening that if people match certain criteria such as a tattoo of a tear coming down their eye they may approach those folks and ask a couple of questions. If the park determines someone is affiliated with a gang, they won't allow them to enter the park. It's our position that policy does not discriminate."
Despite the screening procedures, Magic Mountain has been the site of periodic violence over the last decade.
The most notable incident occurred in April 1993, when 40 patrons suffered injuries related to pandemonium following gunshots. The violence, which was quelled by 350 sheriff's deputies, some in riot gear, began when suspected gang members shot out three windows in a store just before a 9 p.m. rap concert was to begin there.
A month later, an L.A. Sheriff's Department report concluded the violence was caused by possible gang activity combined with miscommunication and bad planning on the part of Magic Mountain regarding the concert. The gang activity at the park forced Magic Mountain to add three watchtowers in its parking lot in 1994.
According to the recent ruling, which cited Magic Mountain's own statistics, blacks are eight times more likely to be removed for cutting in line than other ethnic groups.
While 55.7 percent of the individuals removed from the park for cutting in line in 1998 were black, blacks made up only 7.5 percent of the park's visitors that year, according to Everett's claims outlined in the appellate ruling. The statistics were similar the year before, when 41.3 percent of those removed from the park for line cutting were black, while only 7.2 percent of the visitors were black.
Attorneys on both sides said the statistics, which had been confidential, were obtained from Magic Mountain's corporate office through the discovery process. That came after a Los Angeles Superior Court threw out Everett's claims earlier this year when it granted a summary adjudication motion filed by Magic Mountain.
Everett provided the statistics to re-instate claims of civil rights violations in his case, which will now go to trial.
"Plaintiff presented evidence sufficient to support an inference that Magic Mountain's facially neutral line cutting policy is applied in a discriminatory manner," Appellate Judge Howard Schwab wrote in his ruling.
Andy Gallardo, a Magic Mountain spokesman, declined to comment about pending litigation or any statistics the park keeps. But Amaro called the appellate ruling incorrect.
"I don't agree with the Court of Appeals' analysis," he said. "They have some statistical data for demographic data, but it's not relevant to show any discrimination intent. It's just general information the park keeps in a normal course of business."
Still, the ruling is of significant help to the class action case, according to Howard Goldstein, a Van Nuys sole practitioner representing Everett and members of the pending class action.
"I don't believe Magic Mountain will be able to defend its policies in court," Hoffman said. "Magic Mountain will not be able to say statistics are irrelevant."
Since the settlement with the ACLU, individual lawsuits alleging racial discrimination have continued to crop up, Goldstein said, in part due to increasing media coverage of discrimination allegations, as well as attorneys' awareness of a pattern of claims.
"A number of years ago, if a client came to an attorney and said, 'This happened to me at Six Flags,' they may say this was an isolated event," Goldstein said. "Now, attorneys may be more inclined to look into it to see if there was discrimination, versus five to 10 years ago."
So far, however, none of the suits has proven successful for the plaintiffs. In July, in one of the few cases to go to trial, a Los Angeles jury ruled against 10 young patrons who claimed to have been beaten and thrown out of the park.
Amaro, the park's attorney, reiterated that just because someone was thrown out doesn't mean it was because of racial discrimination. Of the July verdict, Amaro said the 10 patrons were asked to leave the park after they cut in line. When they refused to leave and "mouthed off" to security officers, they had to be arrested, he said.
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