California Amusement Rides and Liability

Article excerpt

Gomez v. Superior Court

California Supreme Court

29 Cal.Rptr.3d 352

June 16, 2005

Twenty-three-year-old Cristina Moreno traveled from Spain to California for her honeymoon in 2000. As part of her visit, she rode the Indiana Jones amusement ride at Disneyland with her new husband. On June 25, 2000, she suffered a brain injury, and she eventually died on September 1, 2000, as a result of injuries allegedly sustained while riding on the attraction. After her death, her estate and heirs filed a complaint for wrongful death and damages against the Walt Disney Company and related defendants. Her estate claimed that Moreno "suffered serious injuries due to the violent shaking and stresses imposed by the ride," and that the jeep-style ride vehicles resulted in bleeding in Moreno's brain similar to what happens to a child who has suffered from shaken-baby syndrome. The Supreme Court of California, after a reversal and several appeals, held in a 4 to 3 decision that Disney was liable as an operator of an amusement park ride and was considered a "carrier of persons for reward" within the meaning of California Civil Code sections 2100 and 2101 (West's).

The Superior Court and the California Court of Appeal

The plaintiffs brought the suit under the legal theories of traditional premises liability, product negligence, strict products liability, and unfair business practices. Additionally, however, the plaintiffs alleged that the theme park violated the California laws relevant to common carriers and that Disney had failed to provide a vehicle safe and fit for transportation. Disney filed a demurrer (a dismissal request), and the Superior Court held that the primary purpose of amusement rides is not transportation, but rather entertainment and thrills. On appeal from the Superior Court, the California Court of Appeal reversed the original decision, and held that Disney did, in fact, act as a common carrier because it "offers to the public to carry persons."

California Supreme Court Majority Opinion

Four of the seven California Supreme Court justices agreed with the appeals court. Citing droves of historical precedent in American and English common law, the Supreme Court held that not only had carriers of persons for reward (i.e., money or compensation) been held to a heightened duty of care, but they were absolutely responsible as bailees of goods to ensure that the goods were delivered properly. This heightened duty imposed upon carriers of persons for reward is derived from the English common law rule that common carriers of goods were absolutely responsible for the loss of, or damage to, such goods (Beale, 1909). This rule was applied in California in Agnew v. Steamer Contra Costa (1865), which held that a common carrier of goods (in that case a horse) "was an insurer against all injury not resulting from the act of God or the public enemies, or from the conduct of the animal." The court utilized an analysis of the legal scheme governing "carriage" developed by the California legislature in 1872, which defined "common carriers" as encompassing everything carrying persons or property (however, this excluded carrying telegraphic messages).

The court referenced injured passengers on stagecoaches, elevators, escalators, airplane sightseeing flights, buses, cabs, wagons, and sleds, among others, and determined that under this definition that recreational rides such as the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland were included. The Supreme Court majority offered a balanced analysis by noting that many of the decisions from other jurisdictions do not hold amusement park rides to the same level of regulation as common carriers. However, the court majority believed that the purpose of the transportation was irrelevant, whether traveling from one place to another, or simply for pleasure or sightseeing. Disney had attempted to show that an amusement ride was not, in fact, providing transportation to the public and that Moreno was not a passenger in the common carrier context. …