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  • MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

    For years now, a persistent story about a death on Disneyland's Space Mountain has popped in and out of various internet sites. Wikipedia lists the death of Sherill Anne Hoffman in 1979, but so do other sites containing the chronology of Disneyland, and other sites such as DLDhistory.com or other lists of internet "deaths" at Disneyland.

    Curiously, all of them repeat, almost verbatim, the exact same story, worded as follows:

    "In 1979, Sherrill Anne Hoffman boarded Space Mountain, an indoor rollercoaster ride, after ignoring the signs warning guests with any medical conditions to bypass the ride. During the ride, she got sick and when her rocket vehicle reached the unloading area, she was unable to get out of the vehicle. Employees told her to stay in her rocket and that her rocket would be removed from the track. Unfortunately, other ride attendants didn't understand these instructions, and sent Hoffman's vehicle on another three-minute go-round. By the end of the second trip, she was almost unconscious. She was carried to a bench and then transported in a wheelchair to First Aid. Her husband was told not to worry and that she had only fainted. When her condition did not improve, he insisted that she be taken to a hospital. She was taken to the hospital where she remained in a coma for a week and then died. It was later revealed that she had a tumor in her heart. It was possible that the ride dislodged it, and it entered her brain and killed her. Her husband tried to sue the park, convinced that the second Space Mountain trip broke the tumor free and that the park declined to properly or quickly care for her. The case was eventually dismissed.[citation needed]"

    The quote above is from Wikipedia's entry, but all of them are similar, down to the opinions and wording about this death. Note, also, Wikipedia's "citation needed", showing a lack of corroboration, at least, and a lack of authority, at best, for this incident.

    Even here, on micechat, there seems to be some confusion as to the truth of the information about this death. This thread, and also, separately, this thread, has posters with some confusion about this death, with statements like:

    Quote:
    Does anyone know if this is true? The list of park deaths (on Snopes and elsewhere) does not seem to list this one. Even the wording of this paragraph is rather poor it says that she "ignored" signs then it explains that she had an undiagnosed condition. Has anyone heard of this one before?

    Localdisnyfan offered a source material for this death, naming the 1994 MouseTales by David Koenig:

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by localdisnyfan
    Sorry....should have thought of this earlier. Koening cites the articles in his notes at the back of the book.

    OC Register, 8-19-79. 1-24-80.

    Not a legend, apparently. I'm thinking the wording in the Wikipedia article was lifted either from Koening or the OC Register.



    And then this -- a direct challenge from Uzmati, stating:

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Uzmati
    I've e-mailed Snopes about this "death". I've asked here on the boards. I even emailed the OC Register. No one seems to know anything about this "incident" except that it shows up in some "Disney Death" lists.

    The odd thing to me is that the report of Sherrill Anne Hoffman's death is always the same basic blurb on every web page I've found it on. Like someone wrote it and everyone else just cut, copy and pasted the story around the net. I'd like to know if it's true but I do know that nobody, so far, has been able to offer anymore to her story other than that one paragraph. Considering the amount of information and the ease with which you can find it about Deborah Gail Stone, Phi Dawson or Marcelo Torres I find it odd Sherrill Anne's mention is never anything more than the same one basic paragraph.

    I file her under Disney Urban Legend myself until we have more information.

    I KNOW ...maybe if we ask nice Frogberto and his Mice Club: Mice chat Skeptics Club ("Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof"&#169 can help us run down some info on Sherrill Anne and her unfortunate "Disney Demise" or put this urban legend to rest once and for all.




    Wow. The challenge was thrown to me. And how can I miss an opportunity to find out what really happened? In my investigation of this incident, I visited the offices of the Orange County Register, the Orange County Library, the Orange County Courthouse, and called the Orange County Coroner's Office, and did research with the State Bar of California, to get further information. I think that I can conclusively bust part of the details of what was reported regarding this "myth", confirm a large part of what was reported, and help provide the details here about what really happened.

    I started at the Orange County Register. The two articles, in 1979 and 1980, did not appear in the Register's online archives, and, although they were nice about it, they did not have an archive for the public to search older articles.

    I then visited a regional branch of the Orange County Library. The first citation listed was from August 19, 1979, which I located. Although I went through every page of that newspaper several times, there was no mention of the death at all in that issue as part of the news. As a Sunday edition, there were comics, the TV guide, special sections for real estate, travel, fashion, and wedding announcements, but the funeral notices, which the newspaper stated were on I9, appeared to be missing from the library's copy of the newspaper. My first thought was that perhaps this appeared as part of a short funeral notice on page I9, but as I later found out, Mrs. Hoffman was not dead yet, so it was impossible for news of her death to have appeared on this date.

    The article dated January 24, 1980, I found immediately. I've copied the article, and once scanned, I will post it or email it to anyone that wants to see it directly, but it stated the following, in its entirety:

    "DISNEYLAND MUM ON NEGLIGENCE SUIT

    SANTA ANA -- Disneyland officials Wednesday had no comment on a Superior Court lawsuit filed on behalf of the family of a woman who died last August following a fide on the amusement park's Space Mountain rollercoaster.
    Sherill Anne Hoffman lapsed into unconsciousness while on the ride Aug. 14 and died at Palm Harbor Hospital seven days later, an attorney for the family, Marvin Burton, said.
    The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, alleges negligence against Disneyland ride operators because the woman was sent through the ride a second time when she collapsed while exiting the rollercoaster after it came to a stop.
    Ride operators intended to sidetrack the car Mrs. Sherill was in so she could receive medical attention, Burton said, but for some reason she was taken through the ride again.
    The lawsuit blames the woman's death on "forces placed upon her body by action of the amusement ride," while the second ride through the attraction "gravely increased" her injuries.
    Disneyland attorney Michale McCray declined comment, but cited a county coroner's report that Mrs. Hoffman died of natural causes after a portion of a heart tumor dislodged and traveled to the woman's brain.
    Ronald Eugene Hoffman Sr., and his two children, Ronald Jr. and Lisa Marie, are seeking an unspecified amount of general damages and compensation for medical and legal expenses, as well as recovery for loss of income.
    Their lawsuit also contends that Mrs. Hoffman was given "below-standard" medical treatment at the amusement park dispensary, where she was taken before being transferred to Palm Harbor.
    Burton said there was no licensed doctor available at the dispensary."

    The article appearing below the Hoffman article was also interesting -

    "D'LAND WINS 'SMALL WORLD' CRASH LAWSUIT. SANTA ANA -- A superior Court jury has decided a couple who claimed injuries stemming from a 1974 Easter Day mishap on Disneyland's "Small World" amusement ride are not entitled to damages. Jesse and Rachel Mercado were saking [sic] $142,000 in damages for the incident..."

    (First, let me note to the Register, shame on you for so many typos - It's Mrs. Hoffman, not "Mrs. Sherill", it's "Michael", not "Michale", "Superior" court is captalized, and it's "seeking" damages, not "saking").

    This reveals that the incident occurred on August 14, 1979, and that Mrs. Hoffman passed away seven days later, on August 21, 1979. The August 19, 1979 date mentioned by Koenig would be too early for any mention of a "death at Disneyland", (or to have appeared in the funeral notices), and as I mentioned, that issue makes no mention of the incident at all.

    More importantly, a lot of the particulars of this reported incident would seem to be confirmed. She apparently "collapsed while exiting the roller coaster", and, even though "ride operators intended to sidetrack the car" she was in, she was, in fact, sent on a second ride through the coaster while unconscious.

    We also learn that there is a coroner's report that concluded that Mrs. Hoffman died of natural causes after a portion of a heart tumor dislodged and travelled to her brain. (A medical condition known as atrial myxoma).

    Unlike the implications of the quotes by Koenig, however, a large part of the lawsuit alleged that the negligence on the part of Disneyland was the failure to follow the standard of medical care by not having a doctor or medical treatment available at the park when this happened.

    In my attempts to find out what happened to the lawsuit brought by Ronald Hoffman and his two children, I visited the Orange County Courthouse. This case is too old to be listed in their computer database, but the paper indexes show that this case ended by a request for dismissal filing by the plaintiff. That doesn't mean much, however, because when a case settles, even if for a large sum of money, it's typical for a condition of the settlement to include the plaintiff filing a dismissal of the case upon receipt of the check. The courthouse stated that they could have obtained copies of the documents, if still available in storage, for a fee.

    When I contacted the Coroner's office, they also indicated that they doubted that they would have the coroner's report, although it was possible. There is a case here in California holding that “[a]n autopsy report is a record that the coroner is required to keep and is therefore a public record which a citizen may inspect.” Walker v. Superior Court, 155 Cal. App. 2d 134, 139 (1957). Some records are only available with a court order, but the coroner's office is able to charge a fee, and I'm not sure that the report would add anything to the Register's report on the cause of death.

    I also attempted to contact the plaintiff's attorney, Marvin Burton, who I found out has moved to Reno, Nevada, and hast not been a member of the California Bar. Likewise, Michael McCray (erroneously named as "Michale" in the Register's story), is listed by the bar as deceased.

    Conclusion: This wouldn't appear to be a "death at Disneyland" under any of the normal criteria. Because an unknown medical condition (legally, an "intervening and superceding event" by any measure) was the cause of death, failure to follow warning signs isn't even relevant, and it was pure coincidence that Mrs. Hoffman became unconscious while exiting the ride. It's likely that, even if Disneyland was negligent by sending her through a second time, when they intended to sidetrack the car she was in, considering the lack of a showing that anything Disneyland did caused the death, and proof problems against Disneyland, and, as the second article above shows, the unwillingness of juries in Orange County to find Disneyland liable for anything but fun, my best guess is that this case settled for a lower amount than plaintiffs might have liked (my opinion only), and that Disneyland didn't want the expensive precedent of a finding that the standard of care for their park now might include having a doctor and emergency room equipment on staff.

    So, in the language of the Mythbusters, you can consider the cite from Koenig to an article dated 8-19-79 to be busted, the failure of her to read warning signs to be complete speculations (and irrelevant), and the cause of death not likely due to anything Disneyland did.

    Most of the particulars of this story, however, including the collapse upon existing, the fact that she was set through a second time, the lawsuit, and the medical cause of death, are in fact confirmed.
    Last edited by RobotMirror; 09-26-2006, 05:04 PM. Reason: Fixed cut off word

  • #2
    Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

    I looked on SNOPES (as mentioned above) and they don't have anything about this particular death. This is the beginning of what they had to say -

    http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/deaths.htm

    They tend to be a pretty reputable source for "urban legend" information.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

      You must spread some Reputation around before giving it to Frogberto again.

      You. Rock.
      I am grateful... grapefruit! ~ Bjork (upon winning Best International Female Artist at the BRIT Awards)
      sigpic



      Founding Member of the BA!

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      • #4
        Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

        Originally posted by chadb14 View Post
        I looked on SNOPES (as mentioned above) and they don't have anything about this particular death. This is the beginning of what they had to say -

        http://www.snopes.com/disney/parks/deaths.htm

        They tend to be a pretty reputable source for "urban legend" information.
        The snopes listing specifically lists injuries caused by rides, which may or may not have been the case in the 1979 incident.
        I am grateful... grapefruit! ~ Bjork (upon winning Best International Female Artist at the BRIT Awards)
        sigpic



        Founding Member of the BA!

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

          Incredible research, thanks Frogberto! You're awesome!

          Photos, news, and commentary every week from Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom!

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

            Great post once again. Thanks for putting that one to rest.
            Please visit my Big Thunder/Disney Inspired Model Railroad


            Dream big. Do what you love.

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            • #7
              Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

              Aww, too bad this isn't the Mythbusters forum

              Very interesting to read anyway!
              Good morning, son
              In twenty years from now
              Maybe we'll both sit down and have a few beers
              And I can tell you 'bout today
              And how I picked you up and everything changed
              It was pain
              Sunny days and rain
              I knew you'd feel the same things...


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              • #8
                Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                Froggy...The Great Mouse Detective!



                Now...watch your back. If you see any mysterious dark sedans parked across the street from your home, or hear a strange click after you pick up your telephone...it's probably those Disney lawyers keeping an eye on you.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                  Thanks for taking the time to write this!

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                    Originally posted by Opus1guy View Post
                    Froggy...The Great Mouse Detective!



                    Now...watch your back. If you see any mysterious dark sedans parked across the street from your home, or hear a strange click after you pick up your telephone...it's probably those Disney lawyers keeping an eye on you.

                    That's okay - I've gone up against the Disney lawyers too many times to count at this point... :thumbup:

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                      Excellent job!

                      In true Myth Busters tradition, next we're going to put you in an elevator in an old hotel and run several jigawatts of electricity through it to see if you really enter the Twilight Zone.
                      Mr. Dark
                      Writer, Disney geek, madman.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                        Originally posted by Chernabog View Post
                        You must spread some Reputation around before giving it to Frogberto again.

                        You. Rock.
                        Froggy, Rocks, Absolutely!!

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                        • #13
                          Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                          Froggy - I just double checked the 8-19-79 date cited by Koenig and that is indeed the date listed in his notes. (pg 233.) Maybe it's just a typo, but odd that he would make a mistake like that. To repeat what I said in the skeptics club, thanks for taking this on! :bow:

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                          • #14
                            Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                            Wow, interesting read. Thanks for that.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                              "You must spread some Reputaion around before giving it to Frogberto Again."

                              Great read, great work.
                              Thanks for settling that once and for all.

                              Can a Mod move it to the FAQ or something for the next time it comes up.

                              Hmmm the MC Disney Death reference page.....just sayin'

                              IMO - YMMV - FYIGM

                              Comment


                              • #16
                                Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                                Thanks for the article. Fascinating stuff

                                Comment


                                • #17
                                  Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                                  Wow. That was awesome Froggy.
                                  Waiting for Godot Micechat.com

                                  Comment


                                  • #18
                                    Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                                    Sapo, the real question is, who are you billing all this time to? I hope you have a corporate client who you soak!



                                    Comment


                                    • #19
                                      Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                                      Dang. I look to Koenig's Disneyland books as Bibles. You should probably contact him

                                      Excellent research!




                                      Comment


                                      • #20
                                        Re: MiceChat Investigation: The 1979 Space Mountain Death

                                        Thanks Frog! Excellent research! Thats the type I like doing, but am never close enough to find. Question, maybe it was different in 1979, but I know at one time, Disney defended themselves regardless of cost against suits like these. Could this case have ended without DIsney paying out?
                                        If you see a cute yellow lab puppy with a yellow cape, WAVE! It might be us! (Or it may be someone else that lurks here!) Thank you for asking before you pet! Next trip, Dec 22-Jan 3rd.

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