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WILDWOOD – Morey’s Piers missed the deadline to seek compensation from the school of a child who died at the amusement park, but it can still try to prove the school was partially negligent, state Supreme Court judges decided July 27. 

Abiah Jones, 11, of Pleasantville, died after falling 150 feet from the Giant Wheel ride on a June 2011 honor roll trip organized by her school, PleasanTech Academy, a now-defunct Pleasantville charter school.

Her parents Twanda and Byron Jones filed a wrongful death suit against Morey’s Piers two years later. The Morey defendants, in turn, filed a third-party complaint against the school, claiming the trip was neglectfully organized, chaperoned and supervised.

Justice Anne Patterson dismissed the complaint because the Moreys missed the 90-day deadline to file a notice of a tort claim after the victim’s death.

Tort claims allow lawsuits against government entities if harm was caused by negligence or wrongdoing.

The Jones' initially filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court a month after the accident because Byron Jones had a residence there at the time of the suit. The suit called the park negligent for allowing Jones to ride alone without monitoring her, and by failing to install safety restraints.

The Morey defendants had the Pennsylvania complaint dismissed in Superior Court because of the New Jersey location of the park, school, and residences of the Jones family. By the time the New Jersey lawsuit was filed in 2013, the deadline for the tort claim notice had long since passed.

“The equities thus weigh against plaintiffs, whose Pennsylvania strategy thus deprived the Morey defendants of the opportunity to preserve their right to file a cross-claim against [the school],” Patterson wrote in the decision. “The procedural posture of this case allows for a fair determination of the [school’s] alleged fault.”

When the case proceeds to trial, the Morey defendants will have the opportunity to present “prima facie” evidence of the school’s negligence. If they do so, the jury can determine whether the school was successfully proven negligent and whether their negligence caused Jones’ death.

Any percentage of fault the jury would place on the school would be a decrease in that amount of damages awarded to the Jones family.

The latest decision was a reversal of the trial court’s verdict to not grant summary judgment to PleasanTech on the ground that a tort claim “does not apply to contribution or common-law claims asserted by defendants against public entities,” the decision reads.

According to a New Jersey Law Journal report, Heidi Villari, the attorney representing the Jones family, wrote in an email that the suit was directed only at Morey’s Piers because of “significant departures from accepted safety measures.”

“It is our impression that Morey’s had been attempting to shift the blame for this tragic event onto the school and any attempt to do so at trial will actually backfire on Morey’s,” Villari wrote.

Jones’ death was the only death of a patron at Morey’s Piers since operations began in 1969.

Investigators were unable to determine the reason for the fall they called a “freak” accident. They suggested she may have stood up while the ride was in motion.

The 156-foot Ferris wheel, one of the tallest on the East Coast, was not suffering from any mechanical defects.

Jones was alone in the gondola, and no adjacent gondolas were occupied. She met the height requirement of 54 inches to ride alone.

No belts or harnesses were installed on the ride, a feature the Jones family has called for after their daughter’s death. However, industry experts acknowledged patrons could simply unbuckle such restraints, so installing them is pointless and against standard practice, according to a 2011 Press of Atlantic City report.

The Giant Wheel “is one of the most popular if not the most popular in the world and has a respected safety record," Jim Seay, chairman of ASTM Committee F24, which administers amusement ride design standards, is quoted as saying in the report.

After the accident, Morey’s Piers raised the height requirement for riding alone to 60 inches and strung metal wire across the openings of gondolas.

To contact Taylor Henry, email thenry@cmcherald.com.

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