California Appeals Court Extends Assumption of Risk Doctorine
In Griffin v. Haunted Hotel, Inc., 2015 WL 7355112, a California appeals court extended the primary assumption of risk doctrine to amusement attractions. The Court held a patron chased by a chainsaw-wielding actor at a haunted attraction assumed the risk he may become frightened, run and fall as a result of that fear when he chose to engage in the activity, and therefore had no claim against the haunted house owners.
In Griffin, Plaintiff joined a group of his friends at an outdoor haunted house type of attraction called The Haunted Trail. The Haunted Trail features actors in ghoulish costumes who frighten, startle and sometimes chase patrons amid loud noises and flashing strobe lights. While patrons go from one horror set to the next, the actors jump out of dark spaces often inches away from patrons, holding prop knives, axes, chainsaws, or severed body parts. Patrons who run away frightened are often chased by actors carrying the prop weapons.
Prior to the patrons entering The Haunted Trail, an orientation videotape warned the actors would not grab the visitors but may chase them. The tickets for the event stated, “This attraction contains high impact scares.” Signs at the entrance warned of the potential of uneven ground due to the natural surroundings of the park. Photographs on The Haunted Trail Web site featured costumed actors holding chainsaws. The chainsaw-wielding actors are the most popular feature of The Haunted Trail and were mentioned in radio advertising or shown on television.
On the night in question, plaintiff made it through the “trail” with no incident. After passing what he believed was the exit and “giggling and laughing” with his friends about how much fun they had, plaintiff was unexpectedly confronted by a final scare known as the “Carrie” effect. During the “Carrie” effect, patrons are led to believe the attraction is over, only to be met by one more extreme fright. While plaintiff was regrouped with his friends on the access road, a chainsaw suddenly started up behind them. An actor wielding a gas powered chainsaw (the chain had been removed) approached plaintiff, frightened him, and chased him. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff fell, sustaining a broken wrist and injured thumb.
Plaintiff sued The Haunted Hotel, Inc., which operates The Haunted Trail, alleging negligence and assault. The Haunted Hotel filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Plaintiff filed an opposition asserting he was not injured while on the Haunted Trail and the primary assumption of risk doctrine did not apply in context where a defendant was accused of engaging in oppressive, malicious, or reckless behavior.
The Court applied recent Supreme Court authority that extended the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, previously applied almost exclusively to sports and athletic recreational activities, to amusement attractions. The Court reasoned the risk a patron would be frightened, run, and fall was inherent in the fundamental nature of a haunted house attraction like The Haunted Trail. The Court ruled there was no evidence that anyone associated with The Haunted Trail intentionally injured plaintiff, and because being chased in the “Carrie” effect was neither reckless nor outside the range of ordinary activity involved in a scare attraction, the Haunted Hotel breached no duty to plaintiff.
The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument there was a triable issue about the “type” of “fear” plaintiff experienced. Plaintiff argued his injuries were not caused by his reaction to “fun” fear, rather he was fearful of “real, actual danger of physical injury.” The Court reasoned even if plaintiff was injured from his reaction to “scary fear” rather than “fun” fear, his subjective mental state was irrelevant because primary assumption of risk focuses on the question of duty.
Finally, the Court rejected plaintiff’s argument the primary assumption of risk did not apply because the location of the “Carrie” effect took place outside the boundary of the Haunted Trail. The Court reasoned the boundaries of the attraction were defined by the Haunted Hotel, not the patrons. It was undisputed The Haunted controlled the access road where the final scare took place.
About the Author
Kevin Rogers is a graduate of University of San Diego School of Law. He specializes in general liability, professional liability, and business litigation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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