Millions of Californians and out-of-state visitors annually visit the Golden State’s permanent amusement parks, such as Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, and Knott’s Berry Farm, and go on amusement rides. In addition to visiting permanent amusement parks, millions of people visit annual county fairs or other traveling carnivals that bring with them a mobile midway equipped with dozens of amusement rides for young and old. Then there are church fairs and private birthday parties where people rent inflatable slides and “moon bounce” castles for youngsters to frolic on.
Unfortunately, a significant number of people are seriously injured or killed by amusement park or carnival rides that malfunction because of faulty operation; operator inattentiveness or carelessness; faulty design, construction, or maintenance; or lack of warnings regarding the required age, height, weight, and medical condition of a prospective rider.
Some amusement ride users are injured when they are thrown from their car because of the lack of a safety bar or a defective seat belt, or the car itself may detach from the ride causing serious injury to or even death of the riders or other fairgoers who are walking or standing in the area. In some cases, the rider is killed because of a defective ride or the negligence of the owner or operator in inspecting and maintaining the ride every day to ensure its safety.
Sometimes a rider who is injured because the ride isn’t in safe working condition will escape with only a few bumps and bruises. A number of others, however, will lose fingers or toes, a hand or foot, or even an arm or leg if the limb gets trapped in a tight space while the ride is moving. Or they may suffer broken bones, such as in an arm or leg. Some riders who get into an accident with a faulty amusement or recreational ride may sustain an injury to their spinal cord that leaves them paralyzed from the neck down (“quadriplegic”) or paralyzed from the waist down (“paraplegic”). Some riders will be killed due to a defective amusement ride.
At times, riders—especially those who ride the high-speed roller coasters and similar “thrill” rides—suffer traumatic brain injury (TBI, discussed in depth in Chapter 30) as a result of the ride. Severe TBI can result even if the rider didn’t strike his head on anything during the course of the ride. Rather, the force of the violent shaking of some rides is enough to result in severe TBI by causing the rider’s brain to move around and hit the inside of the skull. Often, a person who has ridden on a thrill ride will get off the ride feeling dizzy or nauseous. These are symptoms of possible serious brain injury and the person should be checked out by a physician (not just the park’s nurse) as soon as possible to prevent serious brain injury. (This method of brain injury is the same mechanism that works to cause brain damage in “shaken baby syndrome,” when the child isn’t struck but is violently shaken back-and-forth and from side-to-side.)
There is no single government body that oversees all types of amusement rides throughout the United States. The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has jurisdiction over traveling carnival rides, like the kind that follow county fairs throughout the state. The CPSC does not have jurisdiction over permanent amusement parks or water parks. The CPSC does, however, have jurisdiction over inflatable rides, such as inflatable slides and bounces.
Unlike the federal government, California has many rules and regulations regarding most permanent amusement parks and rides therein to ensure that they are safe and will not subject the riders to an undue risk of harm. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) Elevator, Ride & Tramway unit regulates rides and devices at large theme parks, smaller parks, fairs, traveling carnivals, and places offering bungees (see the next chapter for more on bungee jumping) or waterslides. Dry slides are explicitly exempt from regulation. Inflatables, whether they are located at a traveling carnival or permanent amusement park, or are rented from a private business, do not meet the definition of amusement ride under California law and therefore are not regulated by the state, but are regulated by the federal CPSC.
For permanent park rides, state inspectors perform an annual records audit, unannounced operational inspections, and physical inspection of the ride each year. In addition, ride owners are required to have a Qualified Safety Inspector certify annually that each ride meets industry standards and state regulations.
All portable amusement rides are inspected before they are originally put into operation for the public’s use and at least once every year thereafter. Additionally, portable rides may be inspected each time they are disassembled and reassembled. Cal-OSHA regulations require all ride owners to report accidents resulting in death or injuries requiring medical attention other than ordinary first aid. As of 2008, portable ride owners must report major mechanical failures and any accident in which a patron falls or is ejected from the ride mid-cycle, regardless of injury.
California law requires the owner/operator of an amusement ride to be familiar with the ride manufacturer’s information on assembling and maintaining an amusement ride and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, service bulletins, warnings of defective conditions, recalls, etc. Of course, the ride-owner/ operator’s failure to read and follow all of the manufacturer’s instructions and warnings regarding the assembly, construction, operation, maintenance, and take-down of an amusement or recreational ride can lead to an injury to or death of riders and provide a basis of carelessness (“negligence”) on the part of the ride’s owner or operator.
In one case, a 23-year-old woman suffered a severe brain injury and eventually died from her injuries several weeks after riding on the Indiana Jones amusement ride at Disneyland in Anaheim. The deceased woman’s estate sued Disneyland, claiming that the woman had suffered serious brain injuries due to the violent shaking and stresses imposed by the ride. The estate alleged that the Indiana Jones attraction utilized jeep-style ride vehicles that were computer-controlled with 160,000 different combinations.
The estate alleged that the ride was “fast, turbulent, combining the ups and downs of a roller coaster with jarring jumps, drops, and unpredictable movements,” and that the Indiana Jones attraction shook and whipsawed riders “with such fury that many passengers are forced to seek first aid and in some instances hospitalization.”
The woman’s estate claimed that the ride’s sudden changes in direction could and did cause bleeding in the woman’s brain similar to what happens in “shaken-baby syndrome.” The case was appealed to the California Supreme Court on the question of whether or not the amusement ride was a “common carrier.” The reason for designating a ride as a common carrier goes to the duty of safety (standard of care) the owner/operator of the amusement ride owes its riders. If designated a “common carrier,” the amusement ride owner/operator is held to a higher standard of care than would normally be applied (i.e., ordinary carelessness or negligence). Examples of common carriers are buses, trains, and subways that carry passengers for a fee.
The Supreme Court of California ruled that the Indiana Jones ride met the “common carrier” criteria, despite the fact that it started and ended in the same place and did not transport passengers from one site to another. The fact that a passenger begins and ends the ride in the same place does not mean that she has not been transported. As the California Supreme Court stated in one case, “A tourist in San Francisco who takes a round-trip ride on a cable car solely for entertainment has been transported and is no less entitled to a safe ride than another passenger on the same cable car who disembarks to visit a store or restaurant.”
As a common carrier with regard to its rides, the amusement park, traveling ride owner/operator, or other ride owner/operator owes its riders the highest degree of care for their safety and is legally responsible (“liable”) for all of the costs and expenses caused by even the slightest bit of carelessness (“negligence”) of the ride’s owner/operator. An amusement park or traveling carnival must use the utmost degree of care and diligence for the safe passage of its riders, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill. Owners and operators of amusement rides are legally required to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.
Owners and operators of amusement rides are liable to their riders for injuries or death if they were even the slightest bit careless (“negligent”) in the operation, maintenance, design, construction, or warnings associated with the ride. Further, the owner or operator of an amusement ride is required to provide vehicles and rides that are safe and fit for the purposes to which they are put, and is not excused for default in this respect by any degree of care.
Roller coasters have been considered “common carriers” in California since at least 1934 when the California Supreme Court so ruled in a personal injury case. In that case, the court described the ride upon which the victim was injured as a “roller coaster” that was “in the nature of a miniature scenic railway consisting of a train of small cars constructed to carry two passengers each.” The owner and operator of a scenic railway in an amusement park is subject, where he has accepted payment from passengers on such railway, to the liabilities of a carrier of passengers generally, i.e., a common carrier. The common carrier’s higher standard of care originated in English common law, and is based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care toward their customers.
The common carrier rule that applies to amusement rides is not limited to roller coasters and high-speed thrill rides. In one case, the court held that the operators of a horse-drawn stagecoach ride at Disneyland were common carriers, and were therefore held to the higher standard of care when the horses became frightened and ran, causing the coach to tip over, injuring the riders. The common-carrier rule was also applied in a personal injury case arising out of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” amusement ride at Disneyland. Several riders were injured when the boat in which they were riding was struck from behind by another boat. The appellate court held that the boat ride came within California’s broad definition of a “common carrier,” as Disneyland offered to carry riders from the mass public and therefore owed the riders the duty of utmost care and diligence.
The operator of a mule train that took passengers from Palm Springs to Tahquitz Falls and back was considered a common carrier and therefore was held to a higher standard of care for protecting his customers from harm. Holding that the mule train was a common carrier, the court concluded: “The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that a person who paid a roundtrip fare for the purpose of being conducted by mule over the designated route between fixed termini, purchased a ride; that the [owner/operator] offered to carry such a person by mule along that route between these termini; and that the transaction between them constituted an agreement of carriage.”
The owner and operator of an amusement ride, be it at a set permanent place, such as Disneyland, or a traveling ride such as the ones that follow county fairs across the state, is required to provide its riders with rides that are “safe and fit for the purposes to which they are put.” This means that the ride and its cars must be in good working condition and are safe to carry riders. For instance, the owner/operator of the amusement or recreational ride owes its customers the duty to ensure that the brakes on the ride are in good working condition so that it will stop at the end of the ride without careening into other cars in front of it, that all cables are in good condition so that the cable pulling a car up a rise doesn’t break, causing the car to travel back downward into another car, and that seatbelts and safety bars are working properly in general and are properly secured by the owner/operator or his employees when a rider sits in the car. The owner/ operator of an amusement ride also has the obligation to inspect the entire ride periodically to see if there are any cracks, failing welds, or other defects in the ride that could fail or break, causing injury to or death of the riders.
Amusement rides have inherent dangers due to speed and mechanical complexities. They are operated for profit and are held out to the public to be safe. They are operated in the expectation that thousands of visitors, many of them children, will occupy their seats. Riders of roller coasters and other thrill rides seek the illusion of danger while being assured of their actual safety. The rider expects to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt. The rule that carriers of passengers are held to the highest degree of care is based on the recognition that “to his diligence and fidelity are entrusted the lives and safety of large numbers of human beings.” The California Supreme Court has stated that this rule applies equally to all common carriers, be it an amusement park ride bus, airplane, train, or other form of transportation.
Each year, inflatable rides account for approximately 5,000 users being injured or killed nationwide. Inflatable slides and bouncy castles of the type one might find at a church fair or a private birthday party are not subject to the “common carrier” rule, as they do not transport the users. Nevertheless, the owner/operator of the inflatable attraction has the obligation to use reasonable care in ensuring the inflatable is safe for use and is required to maintain, erect, and operate the attraction in a reasonably safe condition to prevent users of the inflatable from an undue risk of harm.
For instance, if the inflatable is improperly erected and secured, or is old and worn, if it deflates causing a user to suffer injuries—such as broken bones or head or brain injuries—then the company that rented, erected, maintained, or operated the ride may be legally responsible (“liable”) for the user’s injuries or death. The owner/operator of the inflatable is required to give the renter of the inflatable complete instructions on the proper use of the inflatable and any warnings as to how it should not be used or weight limits to protect the users from undue harm.
If the owner/operator of the inflatable attraction fails to use due care in setting up the inflatable, making sure that it is properly secured to the ground so that is does not move around or can be blown over by the wind, and is properly inflated, she can be liable for all injuries and damage caused by her negligence. An inflatable castle or other “moon bounce” attraction must be securely anchored so that a gust of wind will not blow it over, causing injuries to or death of the users. Sometimes the inflatable will suddenly deflate, causing the users to fall hard to the ground, suffering broken limbs, internal injuries, traumatic brain injury, and even death.
If you have been injured on an amusement park ride, on a traveling carnival ride, or at a private birthday party or other event that rented defective rides and inflatables, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. That dizziness or headache you feel after a thrill ride may be symptomatic of a traumatic brain injury that requires immediate treatment. Pain in the back or limbs should be evaluated as soon as possible at the nearest emergency department to ensure that no bones are broken. Be aware that if you injured your neck or back and cannot move your legs or arms, or have tingling in your hands or feet, you should not move or be moved but should rather call the paramedics right away and stay immobilized until they arrive. The paramedics will properly secure you to a hard spine or cervical board before transporting you to the hospital. If your spine is not immobilized properly before you are taken to the hospital, your spinal cord could be injured further resulting in serious injury, such as quadriplegia or paraplegia. (This type of injury is discussed in detail in Chapter 29.)
If you have been injured or a loved one killed in an amusement ride accident, you should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. This gives the lawyer the chance to see the accident scene and check out the ride before the owner/operator has the chance to make any modifications to it. Hiring a lawyer immediately is especially important when you have been injured by an amusement ride at a traveling midway or carnival so the lawyer can send out his investigators before the ride has been dismantled and moved to another part of the state or country, resulting in the loss of key evidence.