Bumper car operators got some welcome news from the California Supreme Court when the court ruled that they were not liable under the primary assumption of risk doctrine for injuries caused by risks inherent in riding bumper cars (click here for a pdf version of the court’s opinion).
Dr. Smriti Nalwa, an adult, was visiting Great America amusement park near San Jose. She was a passenger in a bumper car driven by her 9 year old son in the Rue le Dodge bumper car ride (last ridden by the author about 25 years ago!). While being bumped by other cars, including a head-on collision, Dr. Nalwa apparently put her hand on the bumper car’s dashboard to brace herself but fractured her wrist in the process (click here for a video of the Rue le Dodge in action: this is not a video of Dr. Nalwa’s incident).
The “primary assumption of risk” doctrine is a legal principle that bars liability for injuries caused by inherent risks. This principle has been applied to inherently dangerous sports such as skiing and football. This does not mean that there can be no liability for any injury in the activity: for example, in football one could still be sued for injuries caused by an act not related to the inherent risk in the game such as an intentional injury or reckless conduct totally outside the range of conduct that could be expected in a football game.
The California Supreme Court first ruled that although most of the primary assumption of risk cases involved sports activities, the doctrine could be applied to active recreational activities involving an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participatents where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the actitvity. Allowing voluntary participants in recreational activities to sue other participants or facility operators would threaten the existence of the activity.
Regarding bumper cars, the court felt that low-speed collisions are the whole point of bumper car rides. Although the collisions were not highly dangerous, they do carry an inherent risk of minor injuries, and the risk of such injuries cannot be eliminated without changing the basic nature of bumper car rides such as significantly decreasing the speed of the bumper cars. As the famous Judge Cardozo once stated, the attractions of the amusement park “are not the pleasures of tranquility.” Furthermore, the court distingushed bumper cars from rides such as roller coasters in that the amusement park is in control of the roller coaster versus a bumper car where the riders actively engage in bumping each other.
For more information on this case, see this Los Angeles Times article.