South Carolina Bill Would Allow Exceptions to State Liability Cap

By MEG KINNARD | March 30, 2012

Legislation inspired by the fatal crash of a Spartanburg park train ride last year would allow local governments in South Carolina to choose whether to pay out higher claims than the current state limit of $600,000.

The bill endorsed by a state Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday also ties the $600,000 liability cap to inflation. The bill had originally sought to exclude medical expenses from the cap, but lawmakers opted to instead allow municipal agencies, on their own, to decide if they wanted to set up funds to deal with claims higher than that amount.

Sen. Larry Martin, chair of the subcommittee, previously warned that changing the caps could cause the state’s insurance premiums to more than double, to $95 million.

The discussion about changing the lawsuit limits began last year after a children’s train ride careened off its tracks at a downtown Spartanburg park and into a ditch. Benji Easler, a 6-year-old boy, was killed. Twenty-eight others were injured.

Families affected by the derailment said they face mounting medical bills and, as a group, are unfairly limited by the state caps that impose the $600,000 total limit regardless of how many people seek to recover money. Several of those families have filed lawsuits that accuse county officials of not adequately supervising the train operator or inspecting the park’s tracks. They also say state officials were negligent and didn’t properly inspect the train, which crashed on its first day of operation.

The state inspector who admitted to falsifying his examination of the ride was swiftly fired after the crash. The Associated Press reported that the same inspector had issued only one violation in more than three years of examining rides.

County officials blamed the wreck on excessive speed, saying the train was going 22 mph – nearly three times faster than recommended – when it rolled off its tracks and into a ditch. Prosecutors levied no criminal charges against the ride operator, who said he was distraught but wasn’t to blame.

State labor officials changed the ride inspection process, saying they would use outside contractors instead of state employees to review the state’s rides and elevators. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed “Benji’s Law,” which sets new standards for miniature train rides, requiring a speedometer and device that prevents the train from going too fast.

Relatives of the boy killed attended previous subcommittee meetings on the bill. On Wednesday, Sen. Luke Rankin reminded other lawmakers on the panel that the disastrous crash could potentially happen again.

“The lonely preacher sitting in that corner … that’s the folks that we have got to remember,” the Conway Republican said. “What a dumb thing for somebody to do and to operate. Unfortunately, it will happen again.”

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