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Family of Missouri boy who fell off ride sues Florida amusement park in his death

Tyre Sampson, 14, died after sliding off the Free Fall attraction on March 24 at Orlando's ICON Park.
A makeshift memorial for Tyre Sampson
A makeshift memorial for Tyre Sampson at the ICON Park entertainment complex, in Florida last month.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

The family of a Missouri teenager who died last month after he slid off an amusement park ride in Orlando, Florida, filed a wrongful death lawsuit Monday.

Tyre Sampson, 14, died March 24 after plunging from the Free Fall attraction at ICON Park.

His father and mother, Yarnell Sampson and Nekia Dodd, are named as plaintiffs in the 65-page lawsuit filed in Orange County's 9th Judicial Circuit Court.

Named as defendants were Orlando Eagle Drop Slingshot LLC, which owns the Free Fall, and ICON Park. A representative with ICON Park could not be reached immediately Monday.

Also named as a defendant is Funtime Handels GMBH and Gerstlauer Amusement Rides GMBH, an Austrian company that designed and manufactured the ride, NBC News affiliate WESH reported. No representative with the organization could be reached for comment.

Attorneys for the Slingshot group released a statement on Monday that did not directly address the lawsuit, but said the company is cooperating with state investigators.

“We reiterate that all protocols, procedures and safety measures provided by the manufacturer of the ride were followed," the statement said. "We look forward to working with the Florida legislature to implement change in the industry and we are also supportive of ... the ‘Tyre Sampson Bill’ to prevent a tragic accident like this from ever happening again.”

The suit said the teen's life was unnecessarily cut short.

“Tyre was ... an honor-roll student and football player. Despite his prowess on the football field, he was known as a kind-hearted person who cared about others. Tyre had a long and prosperous life in front of him that was cut short by this tragic event.”o signs marking height and weight restrictions."

"ICON DEFENDANTS owed a duty to its customers, including Plaintiffs’ decedent, TYRE SAMPSON, to exercise reasonable care in operating, managing, maintaining, designing, inspecting, constructing, testing, fixing, and/or controlling the amusement park rides located on its premises, including the subject Free Fall amusement park ride," the lawsuit stated.

Defendants also failed to train "employees, contractors, and agents as to the proper and safe height and weight restrictions for the Free Fall amusement park ride," the suit said.

The lawsuit also alleged, that while most rides similar to the Free Fall are equipped with a harness and seat belt, the Free Fall ride did not have seat belts.

The approximate cost to add $22 seat belts to the ride's 30 seats is $660, the suit said.

Attorney Ben Crump, who represents Tyre’s father in the suit, said in a statement Monday the ride and seat manufacturer failed to properly implement safety features. Tyre fell at least a hundred feet onto hard pavement after he was ejected from the ride, the statement said.

“The defendants in Tyre’s case showed negligence in a multitude of ways,” Crump said. “One of the most glaring examples was failing to provide a $22 seatbelt on a ride that cost several million dollars to construct."

"From the ride and seat manufacturers and the installer to the owners and operators, the defendants had more than enough chances to enact safeguards, such as seatbelts, that could have prevented Tyre’s death. They didn’t, and their poor decisions resulted in deadly consequences for a promising young man and lifelong pain for his family,” Crump said in the statement.  

Nikki Fried, commissioner of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, announced April 18 during a media briefing that operator “mis-adjustments” had contributed to Tyre’s death.

“Manual adjustments had been made to the sensor for the seat in question that allowed the harness-to-restraint opening to be almost double that of the normal restraint-opening range,” Fried said.

“These mis-adjustments allowed the safety lights to illuminate, improperly satisfying the ride’s electronic safety mechanisms that allowed the ride to operate even though Mr. Sampson was not properly secured in the seat,” she said.

Determining if operator error was a factor is only the initial stage of the investigation, Fried said, noting there are many other factors that may have potentially contributed. The investigation remains ongoing, she said.

A field report from Quest Engineering and Failure Analysis Inc. in Tallahassee said Tyre slipped through a gap between the seat and an over-the-shoulder harness that lowers over riders’ torsos.

The report said there were no mechanical failures; instead, evidence showed screws had been tightened and then loosened, and sensors had been moved on his seat. The engineering firm also found that of the 30 seats on the ride, 27 showed an average restraint opening of 3.33 inches. However, two seats showed restraint openings of more than 6.5 inches, including the seat where Tyre sat, which was 7.19 inches.

“The effective restraint opening will expand by several inches when forced,” the report said. “During our investigation, two individuals were positioned in a seat with an opening ranging from 6 to 10 inches. Both individuals were able to slip through the restraint opening without any assistance. The individuals were 6’3 to 6’5 tall and weighed between 200 and 300 pounds.”

Officials called the Free Fall ride an “immediate serious danger to the public health” in an order released to the public this month.

The order formally closed the ride on March 25, the day after the teen fell to his death from the free-standing drop tower in front of horrified onlookers.

When it opened in December, the Free Fall’s nearly 430-foot drop was billed as the highest in the world. The ride was inspected for the first time on Dec. 20. No deficiencies were found, and the ride passed its inspection, officials said. The ride was closed after Tyre's death.

Photos and video posted online apparently show that Tyre was not fully buckled in, with a safety harness sitting far above those of the other riders.

In video of the incident obtained by NBC News, a voice is heard asking: “Why doesn’t this have the little clicky click to it, like the seat belt?”

As the ride lifts off, a voice from the ground is heard shouting: “Hey, did you check your seat belt on the left side? Seat belt! Seat belt!”

Tyre was visiting Florida for spring break with his football team. He was a straight-A student who “had a bright future ahead” and was never in trouble, his uncle Carl Sampson said.