The unique attractions at an amusement park can provide a great deal of entertainment, but they also pose an inherent risk of injury -- thousands of people are injured every year. Who is responsible to pay for damages when a park guest is injured?
When a person is injured at an amusement park (or theme park) and pursues an injury claim against the amusement park, the laws of premises liability will typically be applied. This article discusses premises liability in the context of amusement park injuries.
"Premises liability" is the short-hand term for the set of laws used to determine who (if anyone) is liable when a particular condition or use of a building, land or other premises causes an injury. This includes the rides, activities and general conditions of amusement parks.
Although the rules vary somewhat from state to state, premises liability usually recognizes three different types of "entrants" on the land (trespassers, licensees and invitees) and different degrees of care owed by the owner to each type of entrant. Some states do not distinguish between the type of entrant and instead follow the rule that the amusement park owner is under a duty to make the park reasonably safe under the circumstances.
Regardless of whether a state follows premises liability rules that distinguish among different kind of entrants or not, there will almost always be only two kinds of injured plaintiffs: someone who was admitted to the park and was allowed to be where they were when the accident happened (an invitee), and someone who was trespassing.
The defendant must maintain all aspects of the park in a safe condition for a plaintiff who is admitted to the park, either as a paying customer or as someone who was admitted for free. If the defendant knows or should know of a dangerous condition, he or she is under a duty to warn the plaintiff. Failing to live up to these duties (called a "breach of duty") will make the defendant liable to an injured plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit.
No duty is owed to a trespassing plaintiff, other than to not cause intentional, unnecessary harm. A clear instance of trespassing is a plaintiff who sneaks into the park when it is closed. A plaintiff is also trespassing when he or she goes somewhere in the park that is clearly off-limits. Whether the plaintiff should have known he or she was entering an off-limits area can be a hotly contested issue in a case -- if he or she didn’t know, then the defendant will still be held to the higher invitee duty of care. The amusement park defendant will also be held to an invitee duty of care if it knew that people were regularly using an area, such as a walkway, even though the area was not intended to be open to the public.
The defendant must make rides safe for reasonably foreseeable use. Typically, this will include adequate restraints, frequent maintenance and inspections, safety instructions and employee supervision. Note that this does not mean if a plaintiff is injured on a ride, the defendant is automatically liable in a lawsuit. If the plaintiff did something unforeseeable or disregarded clear instructions, the defendant has not breached its duty of care. For example, if an employee clearly instructs a plaintiff not to extend his arms or legs outside a descending cage, and the plaintiff is injured when he or she disregards those instructions, the defendant will not be found liable for any resulting injuries.
Because of the duty to inspect and maintain the rides so as to make them safe, it is unlikely that a defendant will be able to claim that a ride malfunction was a "freak" accident. Given the inherently dangerous nature of most amusement park rides should a malfunction occur, the defendant is under a high duty to ensure that conditions potentially leading to a malfunction are identified and fixed. Additionally, many states have regulations establishing the duty to maintain rides and/or establishing the amusement park defendant's duty of care regarding rides.
It is also possible that, along with a premises liability claim, a plaintiff injured by a ride could sue the manufacturer of the ride for product liability if the ride had a faulty design or an inherent defect.
As with any other business proprietor, the defendant must keep the grounds of the amusement park free from hidden dangers either by fixing them or adequately warning patrons. This includes things like warning of slippery surfaces, providing railings on steep stairs or cleaning up spilled food, etc. If a danger is obvious and there is no risk a reasonable person would fail to notice the danger under any circumstances, there is no duty to warn.
As with all businesses, the amusement park defendant (which is typically a corporation or other business entity), can also be liable for employee negligence. This could involve failing to adequately instruct patrons about proper use of rides, failing to conduct proper crowd control, failing to control animals during shows, etc.
A lawsuit based on amusement park employee negligence may or may not be technically treated as a premises liability case by the court, but since premises liability is a type of negligence, the kind of facts and evidence necessary to win the case will be the same, i.e. a duty owed and an injury resulting from a breach of that duty.