DAVIS — The California Supreme Court grappled Wednesday with whether to hold amusement parks liable for injuries that occur during a ride's normal operation.
Meeting for oral argument, the state high court considered a lawsuit filed by a woman who broke her wrist while riding a bumper car at the Great America amusement park in Northern California. She claimed the park had operated the ride negligently and should compensate her for the injury.
Cedar Fair L.P., the company that owns the park, countered that riders assume responsibility for themselves when they knowingly hop on an attraction with inherent risks.
"There is always going to be a slight risk in these activities," Jeffrey M. Lenkov, a lawyer for the park, told the jurists. If businesses are held liable for injuries on such rides, "it will be mayhem for the courts, it will be mayhem for business," he argued.
The court has barred suits over injuries that occur under normal conditions in sports such as football or skiing, citing legal doctrine that recognizes some activities have inherent risks. Amusement park owners have asked the court to extend that doctrine to such rides as bumper cars.
"The point of the bumper car is to bump," Justice Joyce L. Kennard noted during the hearing. If the court ruled in favor of the injured patron, would it mean "that no bumping is allowed on bumper car rides?"
"Or course not," replied Mark D. Rosenberg, representing the plaintiff. He said that the park knew injuries might occur during head-on collisions, such as the one involving the female patron, and has since configured bumper car operations to avoid them.
"We want to make the rides as safe as possible," he argued.
Justice Goodwin Liu questioned how the court should "draw the line" in devising a rule that would protect patrons' safety but not invite "litigation over every bump and bruise that might occur on one of these rides."
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye observed that the design of the rides — heavily padded seats, big bumpers and seat belts — signaled to riders that there were risks. And Justice Marvin L. Baxter said that without limits on liability, "every case would go to the jury."
Steven J. Renick, an attorney for the park, called the wrist injury "a freakish incident" and the only one of its kind to occur over two years on 600,000 rides. Park officials say she was injured when she put her hand outside the car to brace herself.
The court previously has ruled that operators of roller coasters have a legal duty to use "the utmost care" to protect riders. But Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar on Wednesday distinguished roller coasters from bumper cars.
Patrons can steer and push the gas pedal on bumper cars, but on roller coasters: "You have no control. It's scary," she said.
The court, which met at the law school at UC Davis as part of an educational outreach program, will decide the case within 90 days.