Bumper Cars Gone Wild: California Court Finds That a Rider Does Not Assume the Risk of Personal Injury at an Amusement Park
When summertime comes, we tend to go to amusement parks. Whether it’s the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Raging Waters in San Jose, Six Flags in Vallejo, or Disneyland, going to amusement parks and water slide parks during the summertime is about as American as apple pie. A recent California Appellate case elaborates upon your legal rights if you have suffered a personal injury at an amusement park.
The case is Nalwa v Cedar Fair LP. The facts involve a woman who was riding on a bumper car at California’s Great America Amusement Park in Santa Clara, California. The woman, who was a physician, was riding the bumper car along with her children who were in other cars. During the course of the ride, her car was struck head on by another bumper car and during the collision she broke her wrist.
The evidence in the case showed that the defendant owned and operated four other amusement parks throughout the country. At the other parks, the defendant configured the traffic so that all the cars traveled in one direction to help prevent head on collisions. There was evidence that the defendant knew that the one directional travel helped to reduce injuries. However, at the Santa Clara park, unidirectional travel was not employed. Instead, employees of the park were told to warn riders after a head on collision to stop that activity.
The injured doctor brought suit for personal injuries against the owners of Great America claiming that the defendant was a “common carrier” and that it was negligent in the operation of its bumper car operation. The defendant filed a summary judgment motion to have the case dismissed on the grounds that by getting on the ride the doctor “assumed the risk” of getting injured by getting on the ride. Although the trial court agreed with the defendant’s position, the California Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court and held that the amusement park owner owed the injured doctor a duty of care to operate its rides in a reasonably safe and prudent manner.
In upholding the doctor’s right to sue the amusement park for the personal injuries she sustained, the court rejected the idea that by merely getting on a ride she assumed all risk of injury. It cogently observed that people do not go to amusement parks expecting to be injured. Common sense tells us that breaking a bone is not a natural or expected consequence of getting on a ride. The court stated, “The very reason we go on amusement park rides is because we seek the illusion of danger while being assured of a ride’s actual safety. The rider expects to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt.”
Amusement park ride injuries are not uncommon. Although data is limited, because reporting of injuries at parks is often not required by law, the Consumer Product Safety Commission noted that in 1996, there were over 8,000 amusement park injuries nationwide.
As an Alameda personal injury lawyer, I have handled many personal injury cases against amusement parks over the years. Because the rides often involve high speeds, the injuries can often times be severe. Many times the amusement park owners will argue, as was done here, that the patron who paid money to enter their facility, assumed any risk of injury that they suffered on the ride. As the court rightly concluded here, that is nonsense. People go to these parks assuming the rides are safe for use. They don’t go expecting an injury. Alternatively, the parks will also have riders sign waivers or releases of responsibility to try insulating themselves from liability if their customers are injured. Frequently, however, these types of waivers are held invalid as being against public policy.
California Research Bureau, Safety and Oversight of Amusement Rides in California, August 1997