$32 million verdict against Six Flags in beating case is set aside

The Superman rollercoaster at Six Flags Over Georgia opened in 2002. (JEAN SHIFRIN/staff)

Credit: Jean Shifrin

Credit: Jean Shifrin

The Superman rollercoaster at Six Flags Over Georgia opened in 2002. (JEAN SHIFRIN/staff)

Editor's note: An incorrect photo initially appeared with this article. The person identified as Brad McGail Johnson was actually a different Brad Johnson who had no connection with this incident. The correct photo has been added.

The Georgia Court of Appeals has thrown out a $35 million jury award and ordered a new trial in a lawsuit stemming from the  vicious beating of a Marietta teenager after he left Six Flags Over Georgia.

Joshua Martin, 19 at the time, suffered brain damage and spent seven days in a coma after being punched and kicked by four seasonal employees at the park on July 3, 2007. Six years later, a Cobb County jury awarded Martin $35 million in damages -- $32.2 million to be paid by Six Flags and $2.8 million by the four employees who were convicted of the assault.

On Friday, the state appeals court, with all 12 of its judges participating, said it was “constrained” to reverse the jury’s verdict. It said a new trial is necessary because jurors were not presented with all the names of those who may have assaulted Martin and thus were not allowed to properly apportion damages against all those who were responsible.

“We are gratified that the appellate court reversed the lower court decision,” said Nancy Krejsa, Six Flags Entertainment’s senior vice president for investor relations and corporate communications. She declined to comment further.

Martin’s lawyer, Gilbert Deitch, declined to comment on the ruling. Martin’s legal team can now ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision or appeal that ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court.

In its 10-2 decision, the appeals court found that the jury was justified in finding Six Flags liable for the assault on Martin.

“There was overwhelming evidence that Six Flags was well aware of the dangerous conditions in and around its theme park that resulted in Martin’s brutal attack,” Judge Stephen Dillard wrote for the court’s majority.

In the years before Martin’s beating, other criminal assaults began inside the park and spilled over to areas around it, Dillard wrote. A year earlier, shots were fired in Six Flags’ parking lot, resulting in several injuries. After this incident, the theme park asked police not to release any information that would undermine its efforts to promote the park as having a safe, family atmosphere, the ruling said.

On the day of Martin’s attack, several of his assailants, including at least one Six Flags employee, accosted and threatened two families inside the park. The families reported the incident to Six Flags security and gave physical descriptions of the gang members, “but Six Flags inexplicably allowed the gang members to remain in the park,” the ruling said.

Martin was attacked after he left the park shortly before closing time to catch a Cobb Community Transit bus to go home. When Martin and his friends missed the 9 p.m. bus, they walked back and sat on a rail near the park’s entrance. After they saw a large group of people, all wearing similar T-shirts, nearby, Martin and his friends returned to the CCT bus stop.

It was there where the group of gang members, without provocation, hit Martin with brass knuckles and then stomped on him after he fell to the ground.

According to testimony at trial, Martin needs a “life care plan” worth $7 million so he can live in the structured environment he needs.

A number of gang members were charged for participating in the assault. Willie Gray Franklin Jr., Brad McGail Johnson, DeAndre Evans and Claude Morey III were eventually convicted of aggravated assault and violating the state’s gang act. Martin’s jury said these four individuals were responsible for 8 percent – or $2.8 million – of the $35 million in damages.

Six Flags’ lawyers contended that the theme park should not be liable for the assault because it occurred outside of its premises. But the Appeals Court rejected that argument.

Six Flags, on its website, had “expressly invited” its customers to use the CCT buses and had built barricades and erected signs that directed its patrons to the bus stop. Also, the park’s security team, working with local police, exerted control over the area, the ruling said.

In ordering the new trial, the court noted there was some evidence that three individuals, including a “John Doe” who went by the name of “Mr. Black,” had some involvement in Martin’s attack. But the trial judge only allowed jurors to determine liability and assess damages against the theme park and the four men who were convicted in the assault. Because jurors were not allowed to apportion fault against the other possible assailants, “the jury’s verdict must be reversed and remanded for a new trial,” the ruling said.