David Koenig returns with another round-up of current Disneyland legal cases.
Curiouser and Curiouser
About five years ago, when the Disneyland social club phenomenon began, Disneyland regulars took note. Most were curious; some were concerned. Still others—hundreds of others—starting joining the clubs or starting their own.
At last count, there were more than 100 active social clubs organized around Disneyland. Many dress like Disneyfied biker gangs—sporting tattoos and denim vests bearing patches with their club logo, like the Wonderlanders, the Main Street Elite, or Sons of Thunder.
While they looked intimidating to some and incongruous to others, on the whole they appeared to mean well, organizing fun meets and riding rides together, usually without incident. They’ve even been known to “help” Security police the park, by pointing out and occasionally confronting line-cutters and other mischief makers. For the most part, the social clubs seem to have gotten along well with each other… until the White Rabbits crossed swords with the “battalion chief” of the Main Street Fire Station.
The brouhaha started in late summer 2016, after John Sarno, president of the Main Street Fire Station 55 Social Club, announced plans for a charity walk around the park to raise funds for the families of firefighters who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sarno’s idea was to get as many as 343 participants to walk roughly two miles around the park, each wearing the name of a different fallen fireman. He’d also sell merchandise ($10 patches and $30 T-shirts), and donate the profits to the Michael Lynch Foundation. Sarno said he got permission from Disneyland to conduct the event on Sept. 11, 2016, and the park allegedly agreed to furnish security.
By about a week before the event, Sarno reached his registration goal. On Sept. 11, 2016, close to 340 guests—including members of other social clubs—participated in the walk, garnering positive media attention in outlets such as the Orange County Register.
The event appeared to be a hit, and Sarno quickly began making plans for a repeat performance Sept. 11, 2017. But that walk would never take place. Instead, his social club is now disbanded, he’s too terrified to visit the park, and he’s filed suit against Disneyland and the rival social club that took him down.
According to Sarno, about a week before the 2016 walk, he was approached on Disney property by five members of the White Rabbits, one of the park’s older and larger social clubs. As Sarno tells it, the group demanded $500 from him for them to “protect” participants during the walk. White Rabbits club president Jakob Fite allegedly asked why Sarno didn’t get his permission first, since his group “ran the park” and had authority from Disney to demand protection money.
Sarno says he turned them down, because he wanted to donate all the money he collected to charity and he had already made security arrangements with Disney. Fite, according to Sarno, grew incensed and said if he didn’t get paid, he would make sure Sarno and his wife would never be able to visit the park again.
Sarno says that Fite then began making derogatory statements about him on his White Rabbits Facebook page and Club Hub group page, intimating that Sarno was a pedophile, that he was only masquerading as a firefighter, and that folks should watch out for him. Sarno suspects the posts convinced several registrants to back out of the walk.
On the day of the walk, Fite confronted Sarno at the park. While the exact words exchanged will vary depending on who’s retelling them (both men declined requests to be interviewed), they seem to agree on the upshot: either Sarno would shut down his fictional firehouse, or Fite was going to make life very miserable for him.
Instead, within days, Sarno announced plans for his 2017 walk—and the White Rabbits turned up the heat. About a week after the event, Fite aired a two-hour episode of his “Radio Underland” podcast, leveling a litany of accusations against Sarno, basically contending that the 9/11 walk was a ruse to scam walkers out of money and the Fire Station social club was a pretext to meet fellow swingers or young girls.
After the podcast, Sarno says the harassment escalated. Sarno claims:
• Fite accused the Sarnos of being “con artists,” “scammers,” of stealing charity proceeds, gambling charity proceeds, conducting false raffles, and misappropriating funds donated for their medical treatment.
• Fite allegedly produced T-shirts people would wear in the park featuring Sarno’s name and likeness, to warn other patrons that he’s a pedophile and to report him to the police on sight.
• Fite allegedly encouraged other White Rabbits that if they spotted Sarno, they were to beat him up.
• Fite allegedly defaced the Fire Station 55 logo and threatened to assault anyone wearing the logo on T-shirts or patches at Disneyland.
• Fite allegedly printed and posted photos labeling him as a pedophile in his Sacramento County community, and he aired a live podcast at a local park near his home.
• Fite allegedly made false reports to PayPal, law enforcement, and news media (including the Register) falsely claiming Sarno had committed theft, fraud and other financial crimes, and asking that he be investigated and prosecuted.
• Fite allegedly published the medications that the Sarnos have been prescribed by their physicians, making them out to be drug addicts. Sarno contends he must have hacked into his confidential medical files.
To mark Sept. 11, 2017, Sarno filed suit in Orange County Superior Court against Fite and the White Rabbits Social Club for cyberbullying, destroying his reputation through false statements, and causing his wife to lose her job. As co-defendants, he named Kaiser Permanente, for failing to protect his confidential medical files, and Disneyland, for taking “no steps to stop the White Rabbits’ malicious conduct.”
He has shut down his social club and its website, says he is unable to return to the park, lives in fear of being physically assaulted, and feels ostracized in his community and workplace. And Disneyland has refused to authorize another 9/11 walk.
Court records show that as yet none of the defendants have formally responded to Sarno’s lawsuit. But according to Fite, he got involved with Sarno only after a woman came to him looking for help after learning that her 12-year-old daughter was receiving text messages from the 43-year-old Sarno. So Fite says he messaged Sarno about the issue, but Sarno didn’t respond. So Fite says he posted an alert online for leaders of other social clubs to be wary of Sarno. Fite says people then started contacting him, providing more dirty laundry about Sarno, which he supplemented with his own investigation. He saw exposing Sarno as a way of protecting others from him.
Sarno’s lawsuit is one of more than 100 Disneyland Resort cases currently making their way through the court system.
More Legal Filings Against Disneyland
• A man waiting near Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was resting his hand on the top of the exit gate, when an employee walked out, catching the man’s hand between two metal bars of the gate. His fingers were crushed, with the tendons in his middle finger damaged.
• A woman says she seriously injured her back when her Splash Mountain log crashed into the water at the bottom of the big drop.
• Another woman said she was injured while dining at the Napa Rose in the Grand Californian, when her table collapsed.
• A Grizzly River Run passenger claims she hurt her jaw and teeth when one of two mechanical arms that was supposed to catch her raft failed and sent her raft smashing into a wall.
• Other unfortunate visitors slipped on a Main Street curb, the steps of the New Orleans Train Station, and in the shower of a two-bedroom suite in the Disneyland Hotel.
One of the most recent cases was filed by Joseph Cosgrove, the former longtime Club 33 member, who last year sued Disneyland for not allowing him to renew his membership. Disney had spent the last several years constantly revising the rules and perks of club membership, after what they viewed as abuses of the system by members like Cosgrove.
Cosgrove’s jury trial against Disneyland is currently scheduled to begin March 5, 2018, although the case has already endured several delays, in part due to Cosgrove being hit by a car on Sept. 28, 2016. He was walking not far from his Lake Forest home, in a marked crosswalk, when a woman struck him with her SUV, knocking him into a steel guardrail. Cosgrove suffered multiple fractures to his nose, skull and upper spine.
One year later, Cosgrove had Mark Corrinet, the attorney who’s also representing him against Disney, file suit against the driver of the SUV.
For clues as to how all these cases will play out—and for the low-down on the 2,000 other lawsuits filed against Disneyland since 1955—check out my latest book, The People v. Disneyland: How Lawsuits & Lawyers Transformed the Magic.
Let’s hear from you folks. What do you think about these various legal cases against Disneyland? And please be kind to one another . . . it’s Christmastime.