Personal Injury Liability: Amusement Park Rides

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 Personal Injury Liability: Amusement Park Rides

Amusement parks can provide a great deal of entertainment, but they also pose an inherent risk of injury – thousands of people are injured yearly. Who pays for damages when a park visitor is injured?

If someone is injured at an amusement park (or theme park) and pursues an injury claim against the amusement park, the premises liability laws will most likely apply.

Is an Amusement Park Liable for Personal Injuries?

It depends. In most cases, as long as reasonable care was taken in designing, maintaining, and managing the ride itself, a court will generally not impose personal injury liability on an amusement park. According to this concept, “reasonable care” is a loose standard that can vary depending on the circumstances and facts of an injury.

What Types of Factors Determine Reasonable Care?

Reasonable care regarding roller coasters and amusement park rides generally deals with the danger level of the ride itself. For example, the courts are likely to expect minimal maintenance and supervision for a merry-go-round. Unlike a roller coaster at an amusement park, a roller coaster at an amusement park is likely to require constant supervision. For the most extreme rides, courts may even impose a standard of care synonymous with common carriers (e.g., subways, airplanes, trains).

A court may also consider the following factors:

  • The average age of the intended rider
  • The rider’s own fault in causing the injury
  • Interference by third parties
  • Factors or events that may have caused the injury
  • Infractions of state inspection codes or regulations
  • Prior accidents on the ride

Accidents Caused by Negligence

If a park employee or park management caused an accident at an amusement park, a negligence lawsuit is likely to be brought. A plaintiff must prove in a standard negligence claim that the defendant was negligent, that the defendant was not negligent, and that this negligence resulted in the plaintiff’s injury.

Amusement parks are responsible for the actions of their employees. Therefore, injured parties may sue the park if an employee is negligent. A park or its employees may be negligent by either affirmatively doing something or by failing to do something. Some examples are:

  • Not posting clear warning signs that, for example, patrons with blood pressure problems or heart problems shouldn’t ride
  • Signs that do not adequately warn riders of the risks involved
  • Not properly training ride operators
  • Failure to maintain equipment in a safe condition
  • The rides are not regularly inspected
  • Operating a ride improperly, or
  • Giving incorrect instructions to riders.

What If the Amusement Park Built the Ride Itself?

If the amusement park built the ride themselves, they can also be sued for personal injury due to product liability. In this case, the amusement park is held strictly liable, meaning that the court does not even have to consider whether reasonable care was taken.

Some courts have imposed product liability even when the amusement park did not build the ride. A theme park usually does this when it continues to operate a ride that it knows has an injury-causing defect.

A Brief Overview of Premises Liability

An injury caused by a particular condition or use of a building, land, or other premises is called premises liability. In amusement parks, this includes rides, activities, and general conditions.
Despite differences from state to state, premises liability generally recognizes three types of “entrants” on the land (trespassers, licensees, and invitees) and varying degrees of care owed by the owner to each of these types of entrants.

The law in some states does not differentiate between the types of entrants and instead holds the amusement park owner responsible for making the park reasonably safe under the circumstances.

An Amusement Park Visitor Can Only Be an Invited Guest or Trespasser

Suppose a state has premises liability rules that differentiate between different kinds of entrants or not. In that case, there will almost always be only two kinds of injured plaintiffs: someone who was admitted to the park and was authorized to be there when the accident occurred (an invitee) and someone who was trespassing.

The defendant must maintain the park in a safe condition for a plaintiff who is admitted to the park, either as a paying customer or as a free guest. The defendant has a duty to warn the plaintiff if they are aware of a dangerous condition. When the defendant fails to meet these duties (called a “breach of duty”), they become liable to the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit.

A trespasser is not owed any duty other than not to cause intentional, unnecessary harm. The plaintiff who sneaks into a closed park when it is closed is clearly trespassing. In addition, a plaintiff is trespassing when they enter an area of the park that is clearly off-limits. It can be a hotly contested issue in a case as to whether the plaintiff should have been aware of entering an off-limits area. If the plaintiff didn’t know, then the defendant will still be held to the higher invitee’s duty of care.

Additionally, an amusement park defendant will be held to an invitee duty of care if it knew that people were regularly accessing an area, such as a walkway, even if the area wasn’t intended to be open to the public.

Duty of Care

Rides must be safe for reasonably foreseeable use. This typically involves adequate restraints, frequent maintenance and inspections, safety instructions, and employee supervision. This does not mean that the defendant is automatically liable if a plaintiff is injured on a ride. The defendant has not breached its duty of care if the plaintiff did something unforeseeable or ignored clear instructions. Suppose an employee instructs a plaintiff not to extend his arms or legs outside a descending cage, and the plaintiff is injured as a result of disregarding those instructions. In that case, the defendant will not be liable for any resulting injuries.

In light of the duty to inspect and maintain rides to make them safe, it is unlikely that a defendant will be able to claim that a ride malfunction resulted from a freak accident. The defendant is under a high duty to ensure that conditions potentially leading to a malfunction are identified and fixed because most amusement park rides are inherently dangerous. Furthermore, many states have regulations establishing the duty to maintain rides or establishing the defendant amusement park’s duty of care regarding rides.

It is also possible that a plaintiff injured by a ride may sue the ride manufacturer for product liability if the ride had a faulty design or an inherent defect.

Other Aspects of Amusement Park Duty of Care

In the same way as other business owners, the defendant must keep the amusement park grounds free from hidden dangers by fixing them or warning patrons adequately. For example, warning of slippery surfaces, providing railings on steep stairs, and cleaning up spilled food are all examples of this. There is no duty to warn if a danger is obvious and there is no chance that a reasonable person will fail to notice it under any circumstances.

As with any business, an amusement park defendant (typically a corporation or other business entity) may also be liable for employee negligence. This could include failing to adequately instruct patrons about how to use rides, failing to supervise crowds, failing to control animals during performances, etc.

Amusement park employee negligence may not be considered a premises liability case by the court, but since premises liability is a form of negligence, the type of facts and evidence necessary to win the case is the same, i.e., a duty owed and an injury resulting from that breach of duty.

How Can an Attorney Help Me?

If you were injured on an amusement park ride, you should contact a personal injury attorney to assess your case. Your lawyer can help you determine whether the amusement park exercised reasonable care and if you have any potential product liability claims.

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