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Your client, Rick Moran, wants to file suit for injuries he alleges occurred as the result of riding the "Bat Outta Hell" roller coaster at Seaview Park Amusement Park, owned by Franks, Inc. Rick says he fell out of the coaster on an upside down turn due to a failure of the seat bar to hold him in the seat. Medical reports indicate two broken ribs and a sprained neck resulting from physical impact. Investigation shows the coaster car Rick was in had a loose safety bar which had not been inspected as required by city ordinance. Investigation also indicated Rick was standing in the car at the time of the accident, a violation of ride rules. What torts and defenses can be used in this scenario?  

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Since Rick is our client, let's start with the claims and arguments we could assert in his favor.

By far the strongest claim Rick has is in regard to the fact that the safety bar in his coaster car (a) was loose, and (b) had not been inspected as required...

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Since Rick is our client, let's start with the claims and arguments we could assert in his favor.

By far the strongest claim Rick has is in regard to the fact that the safety bar in his coaster car (a) was loose, and (b) had not been inspected as required by city ordinance.

The fact that the bar was loose may support a claim for negligence, if Rick (or his lawyer on his behalf) can show that:

  • the amusement park had a duty to prevent the bar from being loose,
  • the amusement park failed to meet that duty,
  • the loose bar both actually caused Rick's injuries (causation in fact) and was a foreseeable cause of Rick's injuries (proximate causation), AND
  • Rick's injuries are the kind we can compensate with money damages.

Here, the fact that a city ordinance required the park to inspect/fix the bar and it wasn't done weighs heavily toward the park having a duty that it failed to meet.

One could even argue that the ordinance creates a case of negligence per se, where the fact that the ordinance was violated is itself enough to establish negligence.

Since the fact pattern doesn't mention any other applicable ordinances or laws, I'm going to assume that strict liability is off the table. It's not impossible for a law to exist that imposes liability whenever someone is injured in an amusement park (though it is unlikely, for reasons I'll get into below). For now, though, I think we can safely assume that negligence per se is the best argument Rick has.

That said, here's what I'd expect the amusement park's lawyers to raise in defense:

Causation. We're told "the coaster car Rick was in had a loose safety bar," but we're not told whether that is the same safety bar that failed to hold Rick in place during the upside-down turn. If it's not (say, the loose bar was on the seat beside Rick's seat), then Rick's negligence per se claim goes up in smoke, because the faulty bar was not the actual cause of his injuries. Nor was it a foreseeable cause (i.e., no one would predict that "the seat next to me has a faulty safety bar" would lead to "I will fall out of this roller coaster").

Comparative/contributory negligence. Did Rick get hurt because the safety bar failed, or did he get hurt because he was messing around, standing up on the ride when the ride rules specifically said not to do that?

The fact pattern doesn't say whether our imaginary jurisdiction follows contributory or comparative negligence rules. Either way, though, both systems put Rick at risk of recovering fewer damages or no damages at all if Rick's own behavior caused/contributed to his injuries.

Even with the best possible arguments about that faulty safety bar, I'd expect to lose this case because Rick is pretty clearly 50 percent or more at fault for his own injuries (which is the bar in most contributory/mixed comparative states). Only in a pure comparative negligence state would I expect to be able to recover anything at all in this case.

Assumed risk. Some activities just come with a risk of injury. Roller coasters are pretty universally considered one of them.

Such activities are called "assumed risk" activities. When a person engages in one of these activities, they're said to assume the foreseeable risks of harm that come with the activity.

Here, broken ribs and a sprained neck are pretty foreseeable injuries from a roller coaster that goes upside-down—especially if, like Rick, you try to stand up mid-ride.

It's generally not possible to recover damages for an assumed-risk injury, unless you can show the injury you suffered wasn't foreseeable. (For instance, if Rick claimed he suffered an allergic reaction when a milkshake thrown by the ride attendee flew through the ride and hit him in the face, he might have a claim. "Milkshake in the face" is not a foreseeable risk of "got on a roller coaster.")

The doctrine of assumed risk is the reason a law imposing strict liability on amusement parks for roller coaster injuries would be extremely unusual. It's not impossible, but it would be a major deviation from established negligence law.

I would, at least, expect damages to be pretty clear-cut. Broken ribs and neck sprains are absolutely the kind of thing we can and do compensate via money damages. I doubt anyone will seriously argue that Rick's damages aren't the kind a court can address.

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