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Palos Man Left Quadriplegic Sues iFLY Indoor Skydiving After Accident

Apr 21, 2023

PALOS PARK, IL — Before his life changed forever, David Schilling, 63, ran marathons. He played with his sons. Schilling worked as a counselor helping clients navigate their recovery from substance abuse. He enjoyed participating in sports, like indoor skydiving.

On Jan. 21, 2021, the Palos Park man went to iFLY, an indoor skydiving center in Rosemont, that invites the public to "experience the thrill of a lifetime," by entering vertical wind tunnels that emulate real-life skydiving or the sensation of flying. Videos on iFLY's website show instructors guiding and stabilizing participants inside the tunnel.

But something happened that day when Schilling entered the tunnel. His attorneys, from the Chicago-based personal injury firm Clifford Law Offices, maintain that Schilling was an inexperienced indoor flyer with limited "tunnel time" who could not perform basic aerial maneuvers that required hands-on spotting while inside the tunnel. Almost immediately, the complaint said Schilling showed signs of distress inside the tunnel, causing him to crash into a glass wall inside the wind tunnel at a 45-degree angle. Schilling suffered a catastrophic spinal cord injury that rendered him a permanent quadriplegic.

"It's very clear he was in distress, he was out of control and not maintaining altitude," attorney Jack Casciato said at a news conference. "He's drifting, spinning, and falling down into the net, all telltale signs when an instructor in this activity needs to intervene."

David Schilling will require lifetime, round-the-clock care. | Courtesy of Clifford Law Office

Attorneys filed an amended complaint Tuesday against Austin, TX-based Skygroup Investments LLC, which owns and operates iFLY wind tunnel facilities throughout the United States, Canada, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand, as well as various countries in Europe. The other named defendants include iFLY Holdings, SkyVenture, which designs and sells the wind tunnels, and two employees at the Rosemont location.

The amended complaint is pending in Cook County Circuit Court. It alleges that iFLY instructors, which the company claims are "elite athletes," failed to ascertain Schilling's abilities and failed to intervene when it was obvious he was unstable and in danger.

The complaint also asserts fraudulent misrepresentation counts, that Casciato maintained was premised on iFLY's website calling the activity "very safe" and for children as young as 3 years old. Conversely, participants are required to sign a waiver or legal document, in which the company acknowledges iFLY skydiving as being "inherently dangerous."

"You cannot immunize yourself and waive away all your conduct," Casciato said. "You can't have people come into a facility and say that whatever happens, you can't sue us. That would allow corporations a free lane to do whatever they want. We don't think the waiver, respectfully to iFly, is worth the paper that it's on."

iFLY Indoor Skydiving purports on its website to be "fun and safe for ages 3 to 103," whose mission is to "deliver the dream of flight" by promoting children's birthday parties, corporate team building events, a romantic date or family activity. Wind tunnels have fans that blow air at accelerated speeds through a vertical column, lifting fliers. Flights last about 60 seconds, and first-time fliers are required to watch a safety video.

Kimberly and David Schilling before the accident. | Clifford Law Office

Participants are required to sign a waiver, which is available on iFLY's website. The waiver advises that by signing it, "you are giving up important legal rights and agree to be bound by its conditions." Participants also check off boxes stating they possess "athletic ability, balance, coordination, skill, good judgment and experience in order to properly participate in the iFLY Activities," among other conditions.

Those with previous head, neck, shoulder and back injuries, or heart conditions, are advised not to participate. People who weigh between 260 and 300 pounds are prohibited from flying. The waiver acknowledges that the iFLY activities are "inherently dangerous activities, and among the risks participants will be exposed to are the risks of serious bodily injury and death."

Schilling is married and the father of two sons. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, but never bailed out of a plane wearing a parachute. Since the accident, Schilling is no longer able to move his limbs or body from the neck down. He will require constant, round-the-clock care for the rest of his life.

"Life has completely changed for him. He can't do anything for himself, he's bedridden," his attorney said. "Things we take for granted, just getting up from his desk at work and utilizing the bathroom, or getting in an elevator to go to lunch he’ll never be able to do that."

The complaint also takes issue with the design of the wind tunnel, which said did not provide cylindrical netting that may have prevented Schilling and other fliers from crashing into the glass wall.

"iFLY asks people to host children's birthday parties. They tell parents it's safe for 3-year-olds, Then when someone gets hurt, they switch gears and say it's unsafe," Casciato said. "We believe that's fraud."

Dennis Culloton, whose crisis management firm has been hired to represent iFLY, said in an email to Patch that there was more to the story than "the Clifford Law Firm lets on."

Casciato said a defense motion to dismiss the complaint was denied by a judge. The case has been placed on an accelerated trial schedule due to the seriousness of Schilling's injuries, with a projected trial date of October 2023.

"You hope the lawsuits do more for the public," he said. "iFLY needs to be transparent as to how they market this."

In a statement issued through his attorneys, Schilling said iFLY facilities should close until the company makes it apparent this indoor skydiving is not a safe activity but "inherently dangerous."

"I believed this would be a fun experience under the instruction of iFLY instructors …," Schilling's statement read. "Had I known that an instructor would not have assisted me, I of course would have never participated, and my life clearly would be different today."

Lorraine Swanson