Joseph Masci, 16, plays football with his mom in the back yard of his Millstone home. The Masci family has sued Six Flags Great Adventure over safety rules that bar him from most rides.
Joseph Masci can throw a football, ride a bicycle, play video games and drive a car. Two years ago, he earned a black belt in karate.
Yet under revised safety rules at Six Flags Great Adventure, the Millstone teenager is no longer allowed on even the most serene rides. Not the family raft ride or the flume. Not the tea cups or the merry-go-round.
Joseph, 16, was born without feet. His right arm ends at the elbow. His left arm ends in a malformed hand.
His disability didn’t stop him from enjoying the Jackson Township park in the past. Twice a year, he’d ride the big coasters with friends and family. One photo from 2009 shows him speeding down a steep hill on El Toro, one of the highest and fastest wooden roller coasters in the country.
Then, in 2012, Six Flags tightened its restrictions in response to the death of an Iraq War veteran at a theme park in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., a year earlier. Under the new rules, Joseph is permitted on just two rides: the Ferris wheel and the Skyway, a gondola that runs along cables over the park, his family says.
In a case that pits a company’s concerns about safety and liability against a disabled person’s right to equal treatment, Joseph and his parents are fighting Six Flags in court.
Their lawsuit, filed in 2012 and now approaching a crucial stage in U.S. District Court in Trenton, calls the revised rules arbitrary and unfair, arguing the disabled should be granted personal evaluations to determine who can and can’t safely go on rides.
“You can’t group all handicapped people the same, just like you can’t group everyone by race,” Joseph, a junior at Allentown High School, said during an interview at his home last week. “We’re not all the same. Every handicapped person is different, and I feel we have the right to at least be evaluated.”
NJ Teen sues Great Adventure over safety restrictions on rides
WATCH as Joseph Masci, 16, plays football with his mom in the back yard of his Millstone home. The Masci family has sued Six Flags Great Adventure over safety rules that bar him from most rides.
The suit contends Six Flags’ policies violate both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The Mascis’ attorney, Anthony Brady, argues the restrictions at Six Flags are more stringent and inflexible than at other parks and apply to so many rides they defy logic.
“They allow 3-year-olds on some of these rides with a responsible person,” Brady said. “They let quadriplegics on, and they have less function of their lower limbs than Joseph does. It’s just irrational.”
Joseph’s father, Robert Masci, said that if he believed his son could not safely go on a ride, he’d forbid it. He did just that several years ago — before the new rules took effect — when a Six Flags attendant suggested Joseph might not be ready for the Nitro roller coaster.
Robert Masci said he readily agreed, noting his son’s arms were shorter at the time. Since then, he said, he’s seen what Joseph is capable of. With a prosthetic on each foot, the teen walks, runs and plays soccer and football with his friends.
The hand on his left arm grips firmly and has almost as much dexterity as a fully formed hand, with the fine motor control to manipulate small items.
Robert Masci said he’s not asking for special treatment for his son. He said he just wants Joseph to have equal treatment.
“What we’re doing is standing up and giving him a voice,” he said.
In a statement, Great Adventure spokeswoman Kristin Siebeneicher said the park’s policies were driven solely by safety.
“Our accessibility policy includes ride manufacturers’ guidelines and the requirements of the federal American Disabilities Act,” Siebeneicher said. “Our policies are customized by ride and developed for the safety and well-being of our guests. Guest safety is our No. 1 priority.”
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Despite his disability, Joseph Masci says he can do most things that other teens can do. He was born without feet. One arm ends at the elbow. He has a malformed hand on his other arm.
Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger
Sean Kirby, a lawyer handling the case for Six Flags, did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent weeks, Kirby and Brady both submitted motions for summary judgment, asking U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano to rule in their favor. A timetable for a decision has not been set. If Pisano declines to grant summary judgment to either side, the case would proceed to trial, barring a settlement.
In court papers, Kirby said the more restrictive policy grew out of a fatal accident at the Darien Lake Theme Park and Resort in upstate New York on July 8, 2011.
James Hackemer, 29, who lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq, was on the Ride of Steel, a roller coaster that reaches speeds of 70 mph, when he slipped out of his restraints and fell 150 feet to his death.
The theme park, which is unaffiliated with Six Flags, later reached a seven-figure settlement with Hackemer’s family, the Buffalo News reported last year.
After the accident, the manufacturer for several of Great Adventure’s high-speed thrill rides sent out service bulletins with updated rider requirements, Kirby wrote in his motion for summary judgment.
A person without one or both feet should be permitted to ride provided they have two functional hands, the bulletin said. And anyone with a single functional hand should ride as long as they have two functional legs.
Under those rules, Joseph was left out.
Kirby said New Jersey law requires amusement parks to adhere to requirements issued by ride manufacturers.
“While Six Flags is sympathetic to Plaintiff Joseph Masci’s situation, it cannot ignore the guidelines of its ride manufacturers, cannot violate New Jersey state law, and cannot, in good faith, ignore its own determinations regarding safe ridership, in order to allow Joseph Masci access to these rides,” the lawyer wrote.
Court papers show Six Flags went well beyond the service bulletins, conducting an audit of all rides and developing a policy that requires riders to have at least one fully formed and functional arm and one functioning leg to go on even the mild attractions.
The park also barred prosthetics on rides, a precaution against them coming loose and potentially striking someone.
In his own motion for summary judgment, the lawyer for the Mascis contends the service bulletins relied upon by Great Adventure are not rooted in scientific analysis, and he said the restrictions on milder rides clearly discriminate against people like Joseph.
The teen’s suit is one of at least two naming Six Flags over the restrictions. The other was filed last year in federal court in Texas, where a man with no hands claims he was illegally barred from rides at the Six Flags Over Texas theme park.
Joseph, a member of the National Honor Society, said he doesn’t particularly want to ride the merry-go-round. But if he prevails, he said, he will to make a statement.
“The minute I can go on, I’m going to take a video of it and send it to my friends for laughs,” he said.
Update: The Masci family’s motion for summary judgment can be found here. Six Flags’ motion for summary judgment can be found here. And the initial lawsuit, first filed in state court, can be found here.