Assumption of the Risk Does Not Apply to Amusement Park Rides

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Nalwa v. Cedar Fair(California)
(The doctrine of primary, implied assumption of the risk could not be applied to bar plaintiff’s claim for negligence against an amusement park operator.)

In this case, plaintiff Nalwa took her children to Great American Amusement Park in Santa Clara, California for a day of fun.  While there, the family decided to ride the “Rue Le Dodge” bumper car attraction.  Plaintiff’s hand was fractured as the result of a head-on collision with another bumper car.  Plaintiff asserted claims for negligence, common carrier liability and willful misconduct against Cedar Fair, the operator of Great America.

Cedar Fair filed a motion for summary judgment.  As to the negligence claim, Cedar Fair asserted that it was barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk, claiming that plaintiff’s injuries arose from bumping, a risk inherent in the “activity” of riding bumper cars.  The trial court granted the motion, and plaintiff appealed.

In reversing the trial court’s ruling, the Court of Appeal ruled that primary assumption of the risk did not apply to the case because bumper car riding was not an “activity” or “sport” according to established case-law definitions.  The Court also held that public policy considerations precluded the application of primary assumption of the risk because amusement park operators had traditionally been held to a “higher standard of care” normally reserved for so-called “common carriers”, which are parties hired to transport passengers.

The Court also found the fact the Cedar Fair had taken steps to make similar rides at its other facilities safer compelling.  The record reflected that Cedar Fair had installed “islands” to prevent head-on collisions at some of its other bumper car rides throughout the country.  The Court felt that the company should have taken similar steps at Great America to “minimize the risks” inherent in the ride.

NOTE: The published decision contains an extensive dissenting opinion making a compelling argument for the application of primary assumption of the risk in this case. The dissent cites to extensive legal authority establishing that participation in bumper car rides could be characterized as an “activity”. The dissent also emphasizes the fact that requiring the park operator to install islands in the ride is tantamount to compelling the operator to “decrease the risks” inherent in the activity, which California case-law clearly does not require.

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