California Ruling on Theme Park Safety Changes Nothing

The industry's up in arms over the state Supreme Court declaring amusement rides 'common carriers.' But the decision merely upholds decades of tradition in California law.

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Published: June 17, 2005 at 12:29 PM

Don't get too upset over yesterday's California Supreme Court ruling on theme park rides. The decision, which has been widely attacked by the industry, reaffirms that attractions like Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure are "common carriers" under state law -- in other words, transit vehicles whose owners must “use the utmost care and diligence” for the safety of their passengers.

Disney, a defendant in the suit, asked the court to exempt amusement rides from that classification, which would have voided one claim brought against the company over the death of a Spanish woman from brain injuries sustained on the Indiana Jones ride in 2000.

A trial court went for it, but an appellate court overturned that decision. And now the Supreme Court has agreed with the appellate court. That decision shouldn't have surprised anyone. California courts have traditionally held that amusement rides qualify as "common carriers," even applying the standard in a 1995 decision to Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

In this ruling, the court majority outlined this tradition, from stagecoaches to ski lifts, to airplane pilots taking visitors on sightseeing trips, to scenic railways and, finally, to roller coasters and flume rides. The majority wrote:

Certainly there is no justification for imposing a lesser duty of care on the operators of roller coasters simply because the primary purpose of the transportation provided is entertainment. As one federal court noted, “amusement rides have inherent dangers owing to speed or mechanical complexities. They are operated for profit and are held out to the public to be safe. They are operated in the expectation that thousands of patrons, many of them children, will occupy their seats.” (U.S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. Brian (5th Cir. 1964) 337 F.2d 881, 883.) Riders of roller coasters and other “thrill” rides seek the illusion of danger while being assured of their actual safety. The rider expects to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt. The rule that carriers of passengers are held to the highest degree of care is based on the recognition that “ ‘[t]o his diligence and fidelity are intrusted the lives and safety of large numbers of human beings.’ ” (Treadwell v. Whittier, supra, 80 Cal. 574, 591.) This applies equally to the rider of a roller coaster as it does to the rider of a bus, airplane, or train.

So does that mean theme park operators will have to design rides no more turbulent than a city bus ride? Industry spokespersons would have the public believe that.

"Under an extreme interpretation, it would take the thrill out of thrill rides," John Robinson of the California Attractions and Parks Association told the L.A. Times. "It puts roller coasters out of business."

But Robinson's hyperbole overlooks a rather large loophole in the law. California's Civil Code section 2101 requires common carriers to provide “vehicles” that are “safe and fit for the purposes to which they are put.”

A roller coaster is put to the purposes of rolling people up, down and around a twisting track at high speed. A simulator-based ride like Indiana Jones is put to the purpose of tossing people around as it maneuvers through a show building.

Indeed the court agreed that "it is of course true that not all the statutes pertaining to carriers of persons for reward apply to every form of transportation."

In other words, a roller coaster or a thrill ride does *not* have to be like a bus. The decision didn't raise a legal bar. It left it right where it was.

That said, parks must still bear responsibility that their rides are safe. If Indiana Jones is designed in such a way that it puts riders at unacceptable risk for injury when compared with other thrill rides that toss folks around, then Disney can be, and should be, held responsible under the law.

Yesterday's decision does not determine if the Indiana Jones ride is unsafe. It doesn't force Disney, or any other ride operator to change a thing. All the ruling did a reject an attempt to loosen regulation of theme park rides within the state of California, clearing the way for the Indiana Jones case to go on to trial.

Readers' Opinions

From Jason Lester on June 17, 2005 at 7:08 PM
Well, you may have changed my mind about the law. Theme park spokespeople had me believing it was the apocalypse.
From Robert Niles on June 17, 2005 at 9:48 PM
That's why I believe it is important that people read the actual decision. (I've provided a hyperlink early in the story.)

I went into this wondering if it would be a disaster for the parks, too. But I was surprised to discover in the court's decision that it was essentially reaffirming the same standard it had twice *already* applied to rides at Disneyland!

Of course, the industry came close to getting a reversal, as the court voted 4-3 to uphold. And the industry would love to stir up popular opposition to the standard, prompting the Legislature to consider exempting the industry. And, finally, I suspect the plaintiff's lawyer wanted to look like they were affecting some great change. So you had both sides in the case telling reporters that this was some huge deal even though, when you read the descision, you learn that it is not.

From Chuck Campbell on June 18, 2005 at 6:07 AM
Good job, Robert--nice to see a reasoned analysis instead of the exaggeration played out in much of the media. Take AOL News, for example. Next to the headline "Is Disney Safe?" is a picture of Mickey Mouse riding Dumbo with a small child. A wee bit deceptive, because the article was, of course, about the California court decision and the Mission: Space tragedy. Don't recall anybody dying on Dumbo recently.
From Jason Lester on June 18, 2005 at 9:10 AM
Yeah. I'm sure some people are going to get really worked up over this. Many internet sites I've read have really blown this out of proportion.
From Kevin Baxter on June 18, 2005 at 3:17 PM
Plus, the hyperbole is ridiculous. Buses don't require you to wear any type of restraint, they allow you to stand in the aisles AND they are far more likely to get into an accident. So we have an apples VS dishwashers comparison.

Plus, isn't it a little funny that the biggest whiner - Disney - is also the one that redesigned the fun out of Tom Sawyer's Island so people wouldn't end up with even the most minor injury? I think Disney was pushing this so they won't have to shell out the big bucks when the Big Thunder lawsuits finally hit the courts.

From Jason Lester on June 18, 2005 at 3:37 PM
It's like the saying, you're far more likely to die driving to some crazy thrill-seeking event then you are participating in it.

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