A number of different legal claims are available to people who have been injured on an amusement park ride. Although the specific claim depends on the nature of the accident, two of the most common are negligence and product liability.
Negligence. If an amusement park accident was caused by the carelessness or inattention of the park or a park employee, then the most likely legal claim is for negligence. In a standard negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove that the law required the defendant to be reasonably careful, that the defendant was not careful, and that this carelessness caused the plaintiff to be injured. (To learn more about the elements of a negligence claim, including how blame is apportioned when there is more than one defendant, see Nolo's article Proving Fault in Personal Injury Actions: General Rules.)
The amusement park is responsible for the actions of its employees. So if an employee is negligent, injured parties may sue the park for that employee's actions. The park or its employees may be negligent by affirmatively doing something or by failing to do something. Examples include:
Product liability. Some amusement park accidents are caused by defective rides or components and not by improper maintenance, inspection, operation, or use. For example, the faulty design of a lap bar may cause the bar to unlatch mid-ride, so that the rider falls to the ground.
Structural or design defects in the ride itself may give rise to defective product liability claims against the manufacturer of the ride or the maker of the defective part. In these claims, plaintiffs must prove that the structure, equipment, or part was defective and that the defect specifically caused injury or death to the victim. (To learn about the specific elements required in a product liability lawsuit, see Nolo's article Proving a Defective Product Liability Claim.)
There are a whole host of defenses that amusement parks and ride manufacturers may raise in a personal injury lawsuit. (To learn about these defenses, see Nolo's article Defenses in Personal Injury Cases.) The defenses discussed below are particularly common in lawsuits involving amusement park rides.
Assumption of the risk. If someone knows that participating in an act or event is inherently dangerous, but chooses to participate anyway, that person is said to have "assumed the risk" associated with that activity. When you visit an amusement park, you realize there are certain risks inherent in riding on the rides and, when you go on those rides, you are assuming those risks.
The legal effect of assumption of the risk depends on the state. In some states, if the park can show that you assumed the risks of a certain ride, the park will not be liable for your injuries. In other states, whether you assumed the risk or not may affect the amount of money you receive should you prevail in a lawsuit. In still other states, assumption of the risk has no affect at all -- the amusement park cannot use it as a defense.
Assumption of the risk is not a blanket defense that can be employed against anyone who knowingly goes on an amusement park ride. Patrons must be aware of the risks involved in order to assume them. So, for example, if a rider doesn't know about a loose screw in a roller coaster, that the ride operator received little or no training, or that the park never conducts safety inspections, the rider cannot have assumed the risks associated with those details.
Rider non-compliance with safety rules. If an injured rider did not comply with posted age, weight, or height requirements, an amusement park or ride manufacturer may raise this as a defense, especially if the injury was wholly or partially caused by the rider's small size. This defense isn't a slam dunk, however. For example, plaintiffs might be able to prove that a properly trained rider operator would have noticed the child's small size and prevented the child from going on the ride in the first place.
When riders don't follow posted safety rules and this disregard leads to injury, the amusement park is sure to raise this as a defense as well. For example, if a rider unlatches his seatbelt on a spinning ride and then is thrown from the car, a court is unlikely to find the park negligent.
Disclaimers on amusement park tickets. The amusement park may argue that the disclaimer on the amusement park ticket (the legal language saying you absolve the park of all liability when you enter the park) means you cannot bring a lawsuit against it.
These defenses rarely hold water in court. Judges know that most patrons don't read the disclaimer and usually rule that the disclaimers are so vague and all-inclusive that they are patently unreasonable. In addition, it's questionable whether a child or teenager that is legally unable to enter into a contract can be held to what the amusement park is attempting to do (absolve itself of legal liability) via the disclaimer.
According to the CPSC, in order to avoid injuries, it's wise to take precautions when visiting an amusement park. You can find safety tips on the Saferparks website at www.saferparks.org.
For help in choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Go straight to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area.
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