Trial opens in '05 Rye Playland ride death

(AP) - A Playland amusement park boat ridewas understaffed and should not have been open when a 7-year-oldboy died there four years ago, the park's then-director testifiedThursday.

Joseph Montalto was the first witness to testify in a lawsuitthe boy's parents brought against Westchester County, which ownsthe landmark park, featured in the 1988 Tom Hanks film "Big."

Montalto said park policy called for at least three workers onYe Old Mill, in which boats move gently in the dark through scenespopulated by gnomes and trolls. There were only two workers whenJon-Kely Cassara of Norwalk, Conn., boarded, late in the afternoonon Aug. 3, 2005.

Montalto also said only one of the two workers operating theride was licensed to do so.

"They should not have been operating the ride with twopeople," he told Marvin Salenger, the plaintiffs' lawyer. And heacknowledged saying in a 2007 deposition that "Jon-Kely Cassarashould not have been permitted to be on that ride."

Salenger suggested in his opening statement to the jury thatJon-Kely became frightened during the ride "and didn't know how toget out." He alleged a string of failures by county workers,saying they were slow to respond to the concern of Jon-Kely'smother and had not been trained to turn off the ride in anemergency.

Losing a child "is doubly horrible when your child is takenaway from you by somebody else's negligence," he said. The boy's mother, Elayne Cassara, hid her face in her handsthrough much of the testimony.

The county's lawyer, Stuart Kahan, acknowledged there wereproblems at Playland, but he said they were not responsible for theboy's death.

"The decision to get out of that boat was Jon-Kely Cassara'sdecision," he told jurors. He noted that the boy was a foot tallerthan the ride's height requirement and could read the signs thatwarned against getting out of the boat.

The 80-year-old ride had never had a fatality before, he said.

Two other people have been killed at Playland in recent years,on a ride called "Mind Scrambler" that has since been dismantled.

Outside the county courthouse, Cassara said hearing about herson's death again was "obviously devastating, but I feel it'simportant to attend." She said she sued to make sure "this neverhappens to anyone else."

The family is seeking unspecified damages. Salenger would notsay whether the county had made settlement offers; the county'slawyer did not address the issue in court or speak to reportersoutside the courtroom.

Playland, about 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan in Rye, had840,000 visitors last year. It is a National Historic Landmark andthe only county-owned amusement park in the nation. It opened in1928.

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