In Griffin v. The Haunted Hotel, Inc. (filed 10/23/15; certified for publication 11/20/15), the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant haunted attraction operator holding that the risk of a patron being frightened, then running away and falling is inherent in the fundamental nature of a haunted house attraction. The Court further determined there was no evidence the operator acted recklessly or unreasonably increased such risks beyond those inherent in the attraction.
In October 2011, Plaintiff attended The Haunted Trail attraction, which featured actors in costumes jumping out holding prop weapons to scare patrons walking along a trail through Balboa Park. The Haunted Trail also employed a scare tactic known as the “Carrie” effect, in which the patrons walk through a fake exit and suddenly a chainsaw wielding actor appears and charges at the patrons for one final jolting scare.
It was during this final scene of The Haunted Trail’s “Carrie” effect that Griffin became frightened by an actor brandishing a chainsaw causing him to suddenly run away in fear. As he was fleeing, Griffin fell and injured his wrist.
Plaintiff sued the operator of The Haunted Trail for negligence, negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention, as well as assault. The defendant operator successfully moved for summary judgment on the grounds that primary assumption of risk barred Plaintiff’s claims.
On review, the Court of Appeal reiterated the basic principles of the assumption of risk doctrine, stating an operator of a business that provides recreational activity posing inherent risks of injury has no duty to eliminate those inherent risks. The Court noted, however, that the doctrine does not provide absolute immunity – an operator still owes its patrons a duty not to unreasonably increase the risk of injury beyond those inherent in the activity.
With respect to The Haunted Trail attraction, the Court reasoned that the purpose of the amusement was to scare people and the risk that someone would become scared and run away could not be eliminated without altering the fundamental character of the activity. The Court clarified that because primary assumption of risk focuses on the legal question of duty, the participant’s subjective state of mind is irrelevant to whether the doctrine applies.
Additionally, the Court of Appeal determined that even though the evidence showed the defendant operator had acknowledged a risk of harm to patrons by posting warning signs against running throughout the attraction, this did not establish that the defendant increased the risk of harm beyond those inherent in a haunted house experience. Moreover, Plaintiff did not present any evidence that such a risk of fleeing could be mitigated without altering the nature of The Haunted Trail.
This case is significant because it extends the primary assumption of risk doctrine, previously applied almost exclusively to sports and recreational activities, to amusement attractions. This case also reiterates the importance of a business owner or operator taking precautions to avoid increasing the inherent risk of harm to its patrons.
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