Before Embarking on the Rollercoaster of Amusement Park Litigation, Know What the Ride Has in Store

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Every year, hundreds of people across the Country and the State of Maine are injured by dangerous amusement park rides. The injuries can be catastrophic, and the stakes for the injured person and family are high.

Maine’s Amusement Park Statute
The starting point to understanding the obligations of amusement ride “operators” and “riders” is in 8 M.R.S.A. § 801 et seq. Titled the Rider Safety Act (RSA), this section codifies guidelines that apply to both owners and riders. While covering both operators and riders, the RSA’s primary focus is on the conduct of the rider. These standards are very important for the lawyer to understand, in order to anticipate and overcome liability defenses.

Beyond the general statement that a rider must “refrain from acting in any manner that may cause or contribute to injuring the rider or others,” the statute provides that a rider is prohibited from:

  • exceeding the limits of the rider’s ability
  • interfering with safe operation of the amusement ride
  • not engaging any safety devices that are provided
  • disconnecting or disabling a safety device except at the express instruction of the ride operator
  • using the controls of the amusement ride designed solely to be operated by the ride operator
  • extending arms or legs beyond the carrier or seating area except at the express direction of the ride operator
  • throwing, dropping or expelling an object from or toward an amusement ride except as permitted by a ride operator.
  • getting on or off an amusement ride except at the designated time and area, if any, at the direction of the ride operator or in an emergency, and
  • not reasonably controlling the speed or direction of the rider’s person or an amusement ride that requires the rider to control or direct the rider’s person or a device.

In addition, the statute provides that a rider “may not get on or attempt to get on an amusement ride unless the rider or the rider’s parent or guardian reasonably determines that, at a minimum, the rider”:

  • Has sufficient knowledge to use, get on or off the amusement ride safety without instruction, or has requested and received before getting on the ride sufficient information to get on, use and get off safely.
  • Has located, reviewed and understood any signs in the vicinity of the ride and has satisfied any posted height, medical or other restrictions.
  • Knows the range and limits of the rider’s ability and knows the requirements of the amusement ride will not exceed those limits.
  • Is not under the influence of alcohol or any drug that affects the rider’s ability to safely use the amusement ride or obey the posted rules or oral instructions.
  • Is authorized by the amusement owner or the amusement owner’s authorized servant, agent or employee to get on the amusement ride.

Bringing the Amusement Park Case
While the RSA imposes specific standards of conduct upon the rider (and, as discussed below, upon the operator), it does not bar or restrict the rights of injured persons to pursue civil claims. By its own terms, the statute provides that it is not intended to preclude a “civil action available under any other law.” § 805. In Maine, this would include claims based upon (among other things) negligence, workers compensation and strict product liability. The statute does not create any per se standards for determining negligence or comparative fault in amusement cases. Rather, just like the “rules of the road” in motor vehicle cases, compliance or non-compliance with the RSA is at most “some evidence” of negligence. It remains for a jury to decide the issues of negligence and comparative fault.

In considering whether to bring a case against an amusement ride owner or operator, it is important to remember that the statute also imposes requirements on the part of the amusement owner. The owner must post signs that are conspicuous and communicate the statutory rules pertaining to rider responsibility and conduct. If an owner fails to follow the statute and does not post the required signs, instructions and warnings, he should not be permitted to take advantage of any failure on the part of the rider to follow those same rules. Accordingly, it is essential to obtain documentation of the signage, instructions and warnings posted by the amusement owner. Did the injured rider actually see the signs? If not, why not? Were the signs too small or otherwise inconspicuous?

Also, look to see whether the amusement owner acted in a manner consistent with the rules and posted signs. Did the amusement owner tacitly approve of improper rider conduct by allowing prohibited conduct and failing to deter misconduct? For instance, although the statue precludes extending arms or legs outside a roller coaster, it is common knowledge that many riders do just that with the tacit consent of the operator. A ride operator cannot permit conduct deemed unsafe by statute and then use that same statute to defend against an injury claim that arose from the conduct it permitted.

Additional Practical Considerations for Succeeding in the Amusement Park Case
When you first see a potential client in an amusement park case, you may be already behind. By statute, an injured amusement park rider “shall report the injury in writing to the park owner.” 8 M.R.S.A. § 803(1). While the statute says failure to report in writing does not affect the rider’s right to a civil remedy, this requirement may enable the park owner and its insurer to conduct an immediate investigation.

Go to the scene and see the ride in operation. See what happens during the ride’s normal use. Investigate the type of ride and see if others have been injured similarly. Familiarity with the ride and how it works is critical to both understanding the liability case and in preparing your client to communicate her story.

With some research, you can find standards for operation of particular rides. Few operators build their rides. Rather, they purchase them, from manufacturers who define the proper operation, maintenance and use of the attraction. These standards from manufacturers can be a potent weapon in defining what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how the operator caused it to go wrong by violating the manufacturer’s standards.