Grandma in The Devil’s Den (assumption of risk/happy halloween)

What happens when an 84 year-old goes through a haunted house with her family members and gets hurt? A lawsuit happens. I would love to have been the judge writing this opinion and I think the judge who did write it enjoyed himself a bit. The attorneys all argue about the following:

1) Did the haunted house operator provided enough supervision?

2) Was the victim was pushed by other scared patrons?

3) Did the victim fall down because she was scared?

Assumption of Risk

The judge says all of this is unimportant. He says she assumed the risk when she entered the haunted house and assumption of risk bars any recovery. In California, this type of “assumption of risk” is termed “primary assumption of risk”, in which the defendant owes no duty to protect the plaintiff from a particular risk of harm, and the lack of duty operates as a complete bar to recovery. The case law regarding primary assumption of risk is rather developed in some areas (like competitive sports) and remains undeveloped and unclear in other areas, leading to unpredictability. Whether or not primary assumption of risk operates as a bar to recovery depends on the context and the defendant’s role in, or relationship to, that context.

The judge in this particular Louisiana case analogizes walking through a haunted house to walking through a crowd at a horse race, and finds assumption of risk applies. So why does he talk about the haunted house in some detail? Because it’s fun.

Taken from the case:

The facts are that two vacant houses in the City of New Orleans were made to take on an appearance of a haunted house. The rooms of both houses were decorated with ghosts, goblins, coffins and various other Halloween paraphernalia, so designed to frighten or startle the patrons. There were also accompanying sound effects which one would except at such a carnival. An admission charge was made for each who entered. Patrons entered the first of the two houses and made their way in single or double file from room to room, while viewing the various exhibits as they proceeded. They exited the first house, proceeded through a cemetery area provided by a yard separating the two houses and into the second house. The final room which the patrons visited was known as the ‘Devil’s Den.’ It was in this room that plaintiff was injured. As is to be expected, the light inside the room was dim. While everyone gazed toward the make-believe devil’s den, a person disguised as the devil was mechanically projected approximately six to ten feet into the room on an overhead track. Plaintiff was either jostled (plaintiff’s version) to the floor by the estimated 25 patrons in the room, or she fell (defendant’s version) in trying to get away from the area when the ‘devil’ was projected into the room.

Plaintiff claims that the failure to provide employees in the ‘Haunted House’ to supervise and to police the movement of the patrons constituted negligence. We find no merit to this contention. The trial judge, in written reasons, made the following conclusions of fact:

‘There were at least three members of the sponsoring group stationed at the entrance to the ‘Devil’s Den’ to limit the number of people who went in. There was also a special policeman on duty inside to control the movement of guests in and out. The room was of spacious dimensions, and no more than approximately 20 people were allowed in the room at any given time.’

The record supports these factual determinations. Nevertheless, it is clear in the instant case that plaintiff’s assumption of the risk in going through this attraction bars her recovery. Particularly is this true since there is no claim or suggestion that the defective condition of the premises or unforeseen event caused the accident, other than the jostling by the young patrons.

Whether Mrs. Bonanno fell as a result of being jostled by the crowd or in a frightened attempt to get away from the ‘devil’ is unimportant. She obviously had knowledge that she could anticipate being confronted by exhibits designed to startle and instill fear. She had to realize that the very nature of the attraction was to cause patrons to react in bizarre, frightened and unpredictable ways . It would be inconsistent in this case for this court to allow plaintiff to recover for damages which resulted from her being frightened, precisely the effect that the ‘Haunted House’ was calculated to produce.

Bonanno v. Cont’l Cas. Co., (La. Ct. App. 1973)285 So. 2d 591, 591-92.

(Sidenote: The actual event took place in 1968, the same year Halloween that Michael Myers supposedly first killed in the movie Halloween.)

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