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Pending Law Would Boost Theme Parks' Defense Against Patrons' Lawsuits

September 18, 1996|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While controversy swirls around claims of heavy-handed conduct by Disneyland security guards, Gov. Pete Wilson is poised to sign legislation that would make it tougher for patrons of California amusement parks to win civil damages against park security officers who detain them for suspected wrongdoing.

The measure, which was approved by the Legislature in July and awaits Wilson's signature later this month, clarifies and expands the rights of theme park operators to ask visitors who violate lawful park rules to leave the premises, or to detain suspected rule-breakers in order to conduct an investigation.

Additionally, the legislation establishes "probable cause" as a defense against civil lawsuits filed by patrons who believe they have been wrongfully detained by park security. Although the new law doesn't provide California parks blanket immunity from such suits, it will make it more difficult for patrons to win them, said Mary Alexander, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California.

"This raises another defense for the parks and another hurdle for consumers," Alexander said. "It stands in the way of a plaintiff prevailing in these types of cases."

In recent days, a Covina family has come forward to complain of mistreatment at the hands of Disneyland security guards on a visit to the Anaheim park in April 1995. Robin Paulson filed a lawsuit this spring claiming, among other things, assault and false imprisonment by Disneyland security guards who allegedly detained her and her children for several hours in a holding facility on the park grounds.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman confirmed Tuesday that the government is reviewing the case for possible civil rights violations.

Still, civil libertarians doubt that the new California law will allow theme park owners to run roughshod over their customers' civil rights.

Francisco Lobaco, state legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the ACLU made sure the law contained language stating that parks can detain or eject only those guests suspected of violating amusement park regulations that are "lawful"--such as rules governing horseplay, shoplifting and the like.

Lobaco says that that language should deter amusement parks from picking on patrons based on appearance, ethnicity or other discriminatory factors, and will not enable them to hide behind the "probable cause" defense if they do.

"We expect that the clarification will ensure that the civil liberties of patrons will not be eroded by this act," he said. "Of course, we will be watching to see how it plays out."

The new legislation is all that remains of an omnibus bill called the California Rider Responsibility Act, introduced this year by Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), sponsored by his district constituent Knott's Berry Farm and supported by the state's major theme parks including Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and Sea World.

Touted as a way to protect the public from injury, the proposed legislation tried to set down rules of conduct for guests of the state's amusement parks and make patrons take more responsibility for their own safety.

Government studies have revealed that a majority of injuries at the nation's amusement parks are caused by the misconduct or inattention of customers who frequently turn around and sue the parks. So-called rider responsibility laws are already on the books in 10 states and being pursued in 15 more.

But legal watchdogs, such as the Consumer Attorneys of California, argued that the proposed legislation was not about public safety but really about shifting the assumption of risk to the riding public and shielding the state's powerful theme park industry from litigation.

The original bill passed the Assembly in the spring but bogged when it reached the Senate. Among other things, it would have required amusement park patrons to obey posted safety rules, refrain from drugs and alcohol use and make a written report of any injuries before leaving the park.

In the end, most of the sections dealing with rider responsibility were abandoned in exchange for new language clarifying and expanding the rights of theme park owners to detain or eject patrons who break park rules.

That, says Knott's spokesman Don Troudy, is still a significant achievement.

"This closes all the loopholes and the gray areas in the law," Troudy said. "This creates a public awareness that there are rules to be followed and ramifications for not following them."

* DISNEYLAND LAWSUIT

U.S. officials are investigating patrons' complaints against security guards. B1

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