The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports an increasing trend in total amusement park related injuries between 1994 and 1998. In 1998 alone, 9,200 amusement park related injuries required emergency room treatment. An estimated 2,100 of these injuries occurred on mobile amusement rides, while 4,500 injuries involved fixed rides. A CPSC investigation reveals that amusement park hazard scenarios associated with consumer behavior, operator behavior, mechanical failure, and design limitation.

Liability for amusement park related accidents incorporates premises liability law, negligence law, and products liability law. In most states premises liability law distinguishes between trespasser, a person whom the owner did not give permission to enter his property, licensee, a person whom the owner allowed on his property as a social guest, and invitee, a person whom the owner allows on his property for purposes of business. A person's ability to recover for an injury depends on the category in which a court places the injured person. In most amusement park related injuries, unless the injured party enters the park without the park operators knowledge and permission, or for some other reason does not pay admission, a court would categorized the injured party as an invitee who the operator owes a duty of reasonable care.

Amusement Park Laws

The law of most states requires the operator of an amusement park to use reasonable care in the construction, maintenance, and management of its facility. While at times courts have refused to hold a park operator liable in circumstances in which a trespasser injured him or herself at an amusement park, those cases are usually limited to times when a park is closed. Even parties who do not pay admission or who sneak into an amusement park are owed a duty of reasonable care if the park is open to the public, under the rationale that once a property owner discovers a trespasser the owner owes the trespasser same duty of reasonable care as an individual invited onto the property.

Members of the general public, categorized as invitees, who incur injures as a result of an amusement park operator's failure to use reasonable care in the construction, maintenance, or management of the facility may have a viable claim. In the case of invitees, even open and obvious dangers may result in liability. In addition, most states have implemented laws that require amusement parks to take certain safety precautions. Courts have often held that an amusement park's failure to meet that minimum safety specification dictated by state law results in a presumption that the amusement park operator acted negligently. Such a finding can represent a considerable aid to an injured party attempting to receive compensation through a lawsuit against an amusement park.

Despite the stringent requirements the law places on amusement park operators, courts in several states have stressed the fact that owners and operators of amusement parks are not insurers of the safety of its patrons. As such, amusement parks face liability only in those cases in which the owner, operator, or an employee of the amusement park acted negligently. The law, courts stress, does not require amusement parks to protect its patrons against every possible danger or hazard. As a result, if an individual suffers an injury as the result of another patron's acts, the injured party may find it difficult to recover damages from the amusement park. Some states do require that amusement parks control and supervise patrons whose actions may cause injury to others. In those cases, an injured party must establish that the amusement park did not take the proper steps to prevent another patron from acting in a manner that caused the injury.

In addition, if a patron sustains an injury as the result of his or her failure to follow the instruction for the safe use of amusement park equipment or rides (whether written or communicated orally by an amusement park employee), under the legal principle of comparative negligence, a court may restrict the damage award a patron may receive. Under comparative negligence, a court can reduce the damage award by the percentage that the jury finds the injured party's negligence responsible for the injury. In some states, in cases where the injured party's negligence accounts for more than 50 percent of the cause of the accident, courts can bar a damage award completely.

Several states have enacted legislation, known as Recreational Use Immunity statutes, which immunize property owners from liability in cases where a private property owner opens his property to the general public free of charge. Since no states in which a Recreational Use Immunity statute has encountered a case in which an amusement park did not charge admission, and the patron subsequently injured him or herself, it is difficult to predict whether courts would allow amusement park operators to use the statute to shield itself from liability. In analogous cases, courts have looked to see what type of benefit the property owner derived from free admission. If the injured party conferred some type of benefit on the owner, then courts usually deny property owners the protection of the Recreational Use Immunity.

Negligence Claims

The negligence of amusement park operators comes in a variety of forms. Often an injury results from failure of the operator to keep a ride in a safe condition through proper maintenance and inspection of the ride. In other cases, an amusement park employee operating a ride may fail to give proper instructions, provide proper warning about the dangers of the ride, or operate the ride in a manner that results in injury to a patron. Based on a legal principal that makes employers responsible for the negligent action of their employees, an injured party may sue the amusement park if an employee fails to use reasonable care while operating a ride.

Negligence also occurs when the amusement park operator fails to keep areas besides the rides safe for the public. Failure to use reasonable care in maintaining the walkways and public areas of an amusement park resulting in injury represents another case in which the amusement park operator's negligence might result in liability.

Another, more difficult case, might arise when an injured party believes that a amusement park ride was so inherently dangerous, that even proper maintenance and inspection could not have prevented the injury. These types of cases, known as products liability cases, might enable the injured party to sue the manufacturer of the "dangerous" ride as well as the amusement park operator who put the ride to use. Products liability cases represent a unique hurdle for a plaintiff, in that the plaintiff must establish that the manufacturer could have used a reasonable alternative design that would have prevented the injury. This burden is particularly stringent in that a court may find that plaintiffs assume a risk inherent in amusement park rides, and that it is unrealistic to expect manufacturers to take every conceivable measure to make a ride 100 percent. In order to hold an amusement park operator liable under a products liability theory, in addition to the reasonable alternative design, the injured party must also establish that the operator failed to use reasonable care in the decision to use the ride in the amusement park.

A plaintiff might also incur great expense in pursuing a products liability case. In order to establish a reasonable alternative design the plaintiff will likely have to hire an engineer or other expert to critique the manufacturer's design and to suggest the alternative design. A products liability case faces a better chance for success if prior cases have already established that the design of the ride is defective and that several other people have suffered injuries similar to that of the plaintiff.

Premises liability law, negligence law, and products liability law represent nuanced and complicated areas of the law. If you believe that you have sustained injuries at an amusement park you should contact a qualified attorney to help you determine whether another's negligence contributed to your accident.

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