We've all heard amusement park horror stories: A 10-year-old boy killed while riding the world's tallest water slide in Kansas; a teen girl's feet sliced off while riding a Tower of Power in Kentucky; one person killed and seven injured when a carnival ride collapsed in Ohio.
Fortunately, serious amusement ride accidents are rare, but they raise important questions about safety and government regulations. If you're thinking about visiting an amusement park or a carnival, here's what you need to know:
Government regulation of amusement park rides depends on whether the ride is classified as fixed-site or portable. Fixed-site rides are permanent fixtures and don't travel from one location to another. The rides at Disneyland and Six Flags are examples of fixed-site rides. Portable rides, like those you find at county fairs and carnivals, travel from site to site.
Fixed-site rides are not federally regulated. Each state is responsible for regulating its own fixed-site rides. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), as of July 2023, 44 of 50 states regulate amusement parks with fixed-site rides. States without oversight include Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, and Utah.
The exclusion of fixed-site rides from federal regulation is a big one and is commonly referred to as the "Roller Coaster Loophole."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) oversees portable amusement rides that travel from state to state, as well as inflatable devices and go-karts. Ride manufacturers, owners, and operators are required to notify the CPSC if they have information that reasonably supports the conclusion that a ride fails to comply with safety standards, contains a defect, or creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.
It's hard to say exactly how many amusement ride injuries happen each year. No agency collects statistics on accidents and injuries from state to state.
The IAAPA sponsors an annual survey to collect data about attendance and patron injuries at fixed-site amusement parks. In 2021, a total of 484 U.S. and Canadian parks were invited to participate in the survey, but only 179 provided some or all of the data requested. Based on the data collected, IAAPA estimated that a total of 1,224 injuries occurred on rides in 2021, and about 130 of those injuries were serious.
The CPSC estimated that 34,988 injuries occurred at amusement attractions in 2021. This estimate is based on emergency room data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and includes fixed rides in amusement or theme parks, mobile rides, inflatables, rides at shopping malls or restaurants, and waterslides.
A CPSC report analyzed amusement ride-related injuries and deaths in the United States from 1987 to 2000. The report covered fatalities and emergency room-treated injuries that happened on fixed site and mobile rides.
Some of the most common amusement ride-related injuries by body part for the years 1993 through 2000 included:
Most people sought treatment for strains or sprains (35.07%). Other common diagnoses for amusement ride-related injuries from 1993 through 2000 included:
CPSC estimated that the average number of deaths related to amusement rides each year was 4.5.
Children 10-14 years old are injured more frequently than any other group (17.9%), with children 5-9 years old (12.6%), teens 15-19 years old (13.8%), and babies and toddlers 0-4 years old (6.3%) not far behind.
CPSC staff reviewed in-depth investigation (INDP) reports from 1990 to 2001 for "hazard patterns." The reports identified the following factors as contributing to most amusement ride injuries:
Mechanical failures. Sometimes injuries happen when equipment fails. Mechanical failures can be caused by manufacturing defects or improper maintenance. For example, a lap bar or a roller coaster car can detach mid-ride, a ride may fail to shut off, or a safety pin may go missing.
Operator behaviors. Operators don't always follow safety guidelines, intentionally or by mistake. For example, injuries happen when operators abruptly stop rides, improperly assemble or maintain rides, or incorrectly latch seatbelts.
Rider behaviors. In some cases, riders are to blame for their own injuries. Riders sometimes stand up or rock cars during rides, sit sideways or with their feet above the lap bar, unlatch safety restraints, or hold children above the safety restraint.
Inherent nature of the ride. Even without any mechanical defect, operator error, or rider misuse, an amusement park ride may still cause an injury simply because of the nature of the ride itself. For example, according to the CPSC, consumers have reported cases of cerebral and retinal hemorrhage, subdural hematoma, loss of consciousness, headache, and dizziness associated with the extremely rapid spinning of some amusement park rides.
People injured on amusement park rides can typically file personal injury lawsuits against ride owners, ride operators, and ride manufacturers.
If an amusement park accident was caused by carelessness or inattention, then the most likely legal claim is for negligence. In a standard negligence claim, the person suing (the "plaintiff") has to show that the person or entity getting sued (the "defendant") has a legal duty to be reasonably careful, that the defendant was not careful, and that this carelessness caused the plaintiff's injuries.
As an employer, an amusement park is typically responsible for the actions of its employees based on a legal theory called "respondeat superior." You can and often should sue both the rider operator and owner of the amusement park or carnival.
Examples of amusement ride-related negligence include:
Learn more about proving fault in personal injury accidents.
Some amusement park accidents are caused by design flaws and defective parts 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.
If an amusement park injury is caused by a faulty design or product you can file a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer and potentially the seller of the ride. You'll generally have to prove that the structure, equipment, or design was defective and that the defect specifically caused your injury.
Learn more about proving a product liability claim.
If you sue an amusement park or ride manufacturer you can expect to get some pushback. Here are the defenses commonly raised in lawsuits involving amusement park rides.
In legal terms, if someone knows that participating in an activity is inherently dangerous, but chooses to participate anyway, that person is said to have "assumed the risk" of the activity.
The legal effect of an "assumption of the risk" defense depends on the state. In some states, if a 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 get if you win your lawsuit. In still other states, the amusement park cannot use "assumption of the risk" as a defense at all.
Riders must be aware of the risks involved in order to assume them. So, for example, if a rider doesn't know that a park never conducts safety inspections or that a ride's support beams are corroded, the rider can't have assumed the risks associated with those facts.
If an injured rider didn't t 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 fully or partially caused by the rider's 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 a child's small size and prevented the child from going on the ride in the first place.
When riders get hurt after disregarding safety rules, an amusement park is sure to raise this as a defense as well. For example, riders who unlatch their safety belts or disregard health warnings are unlikely to get full compensation for their injuries.
Many amusement parks print waivers on the back of their admission tickets that essentially say that customers give up their right to sue the park when they buy a ticket. Courts often uphold these types of waivers in cases involving specific activities, like skiing, but may not enforce it at a park operating various rides with different risks. The ticket disclaimers are often so vague and all-inclusive that they are meaningless and it's questionable whether a child or teenager would be legally bound by a ticket waiver.
As with injury-related legal claims, the dollar value of an amusement park injury lawsuit (based on negligence or product liability) depends on the individual plaintiff's circumstances. Compensation (called "damages") is typically based on:
Learn more about how to calculate your personal injury damages.
If you or your child has been injured on an amusement ride, talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can answer your questions, explain your legal options, and offer an informed opinion about the strength and value of your claim.
Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.