In a recent case involving the assumption of risk doctrine, the California Court of Appeals addressed whether the Haunted Hotel breached their duty to a patron who fled from fear and was injured while running. Assumption of risk is based on the theory that an individual assumes a risk inherent in the fundamental nature of the activity. However, if the risk has been unreasonably increased beyond those inherent to the activity, there may be a legal remedy for the injured individual.
The facts of this case demonstrate that Scott Griffin purchased a ticket for the Haunted Trail, an outdoor haunted house attraction. While patrons walk through the trail, actors jump out of dark spaces while holding props like chainsaws and severed body parts. Mr. Griffin believed he was near the exit of the trail when he was unexpectedly confronted by a final scare. This scare is entitled the “Carrie” effect because of its timing near the end of the attraction. An actor holding a chainsaw (without a chain) approached Mr. Griffin and frightened him. While Mr. Griffin ran away, the actor gave chase, which is what they often do during the attraction. Mr. Griffin fell and was injured while fleeing. He then sued the Haunted Hotel, alleging negligence and assault.
The trial court granted the Haunted Hotel’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that there is no duty to eliminate or protect a plaintiff against inherent risks in an activity. The court found the Haunted Hotel did not breach any duty to Mr. Griffin.
On appeal, the court examined the details of the Haunted Trail’s website, which stated that while patrons will not be grabbed or touched, they do often run away. There is a warning regarding running, stating “DON’T run and you should be fine!” Furthermore, the website features costumed actors holding chainsaws, which have been mentioned in radio advertising.
The court stated that the Haunted Trail has been operating for 14 years, and over 250,000 patrons have attended the event. In the past three years, between 10 and 15 people have fallen while running from the final actor holding the chainsaw. On the night that Mr. Griffin attended, three people fell but did not report being injured.
The appellate court first turned to the primary assumption of risk doctrine, which holds that a business operator providing a recreational activity posing inherent risks of injury does not have a duty to eliminate those inherent risks. The court stated it is a legal question whether risks are inherent, assessed by common knowledge. Courts consider their own experience with the recreational activity, as well as the evidence presented by the parties.
Instead of asking what risks the plaintiff knew of and chose to encounter, the court stated that the doctrine of assumption of risk evaluates the nature of the activity and the defendant’s role in the activity. The question is whether the defendant has a duty to protect a plaintiff from a risk of harm. The court also distinguished the role of operators and owners, since they owe a duty not to unreasonably increase the risk of injury inherent in an activity.
The Haunted Hotel, in their motion for summary judgment, was required to establish that the primary assumption of risk doctrine applied, and the evidence showed they did not unreasonably increase the risks of harm beyond those inherent to the activity, nor did they intentionally or recklessly injure Mr. Griffin.
First, the court stated that the primary assumption of risk doctrine applied in this case, since the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity. Here, the point of the Haunted Trail is to scare people, and the risk that someone will be scared and run away cannot be eliminated without changing the character of the activity.
The court rejected Mr. Griffin’s contention that the type of fear he experienced was different from that inherent to the Haunted Trail. He asserted that he was fearful of a real, actual danger, caused by the Haunted Hotel employee wielding a chainsaw. But the risk inherent in the Haunted Trail’s effect – that a patron believes they are at the exit and are then confronted with a danger – is the risk Mr. Griffin experienced.
Furthermore, the court stated that Mr. Griffin’s subjective state of mind, whether he consented to or appreciated the risk, is irrelevant. Primary assumption of risk focuses on the question of duty. Even if Mr. Griffin felt “real fear” and not “scary fear,” his state of mind is irrelevant.
In sum, the court stated that the Haunted Hotel’s duty is to not unreasonably increase the inherent risk of surprise or fear. Here, there was no evidence that the Haunted Hotel increased the risk beyond what is held by an intensely scary amusement attraction. Simply because the Haunted Hotel gave warnings not to run did not create a triable issue of fact that the Haunted Hotel unreasonably increased the risk of falling.
Regarding whether the Haunted Hotel breached a duty by being reckless, the court stated there is no evidence that anyone associated with the Haunted Trail intentionally injured Mr. Griffin. The court stated that “being chased within the physical confines of the Haunted Trail by a chainsaw carrying maniac is a fundamental part and inherent risk of this amusement.”
The court affirmed the lower court’s decision, granting summary judgment in favor of the Haunted Hotel.
At Sharifi Firm, we help individuals secure compensation for their injuries. Our personal injury attorneys represent injured plaintiffs throughout Southern California. Contact our office at 1-866-422-7222 for a free, no-obligation consultation.
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California Court Holds that General Duty to Maintain Reasonably Safe Premises Supports Claim against Restaurant for Stray Soccer Ball Injury, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, November 10, 2015
California Court of Appeal Holds Release of Liability Bars Negligence Action in Kickboxing Class Injury, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, October 15, 2015