Amusement Parks, Water Parks, and “Assumption of Risk”: a Sometimes-risky Strategy
Amusement park and water park operators customarily build their defense against injury claims around the doctrine of “assumption of risk.” Under ideal circumstances, this defense proves effective in court. However, the circumstances of amusement and water park accidents can be far from ideal, and defendants are often surprised and confounded—certainly not amused—when this doctrine fails to protect them.
What is “Assumption of Risk” for Amusement Park Injuries?
The general principle of “assumption of risk” is this: if a patron of a park is made fully aware of the inherent risks involved in going on a ride, then the park is not liable for any injuries that ensue. As long as the park provided adequate signage and warnings, and it can be proven that the injury was not caused by negligence or unforeseen dangers, all is well. However, if something out of the ordinary occurred—for example, the person operating the ride failed to take proper precautions, warnings were inadequate, or the device was not properly maintained—all is not well, and it is the park operator who assumes the risk.
In the case of Atlanta Funtown, Inc. v. Crouch (1966), the court held that “assumption of risk” is highly appropriate “in the case of thrill-seeking patrons of amusement devices, if the facts of the cases demand an application of the doctrine.” The Georgia court thereby asserted that risk is a given in the amusement park realm, and that patrons are—or should be—aware of this risk.
It is this line of thought that gives park operators the idea that they are automatically protected by law. The way they see it, if you are looking for a thrill, you must face the consequences of thrill-seeking—and it is no one’s fault but your own if you happen to hurt yourself. But this “tough luck” attitude doesn’t always work.
According to the law, “. . . if one knowing and comprehending a danger voluntarily exposes oneself to it, though not negligent in doing so, he or she is deemed to have assumed the risk, and is precluded or prevented from recovering from an injury resulting from a danger.” Thus, if the risk of injury is “open and apparent” to a person embarking on an amusement park ride, and the person has voluntarily decided to do so, then he or she assumes the risks of taking the ride, and cannot recover for resulting injuries. However, if the participant does not know how “the risk is increased by unusual circumstances,” the situation becomes problematic.
Consider the case of Holbrook v. Prescott (1983), in which a teenage girl broke her leg on a water slide at Wet Willy’s, an amusement establishment of three water slides. Wet Willy’s cited the Atlanta Funtown case in its defense, arguing that the girl broke her leg because she failed to “exercise ordinary care.” However, the circumstances in this case were highly unusual. The teenager was with a group of friends who wanted to form a “train.” When she expressed her apprehension about this idea, the employee operating the ride assured her that it would be safe, since he would stop the water flow of the slide while the group was assembling itself at the top of the slide. The problem was that, when the attendant turned the water back on, the resulting surge of water caused the “train” to descend at a faster-than-normal speed, thereby creating unexpected danger. Because the girl was not aware of the greater risk that this action would cause, she was entitled to monetary recovery.
Amusement and water park operators who count on being automatically protected from claims against them should beware of their own legal risks. Even though the amusement industry is largely free of federal regulation, those who run parks cannot afford to be lackadaisical. For— just as joyrides can become nightmares for their patrons—a laissez faire approach to safety can cause them nightmares, as well.