SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court, protecting providers of risky recreational activities from lawsuits, decided Monday that bumper car riders may not sue amusement parks over injuries stemming from the inherent nature of the attraction.
The 6-1 decision may be cited to curb liability for a wide variety of activities — such as jet skiing, ice skating and even participating in a fitness class, lawyers in the case said.
"This is a victory for anyone who likes fun and risk activities," said Jeffrey M. Lenkov, an attorney for Great America, which won the case.
But Mark D. Rosenberg, who represented a woman injured in a bumper car at the Bay Area amusement park, said the decision was bad for consumers.
"Patrons are less safe today than they were yesterday," Rosenberg said.
The ruling came in a lawsuit by Smriti Nalwa, who fractured her wrist in 2005 while riding in a bumper car with her 9-year-old son and being involved in a head-on collision. Rosenberg said Great America had told ride operators not to allow head-on collisions, but failed to ask patrons to avoid them.
The court said Nalwa's injury was caused by a collision with another bumper car, a normal part of the ride. To reduce all risk of injury, the ride would have to be scrapped or completely reconfigured, the court said.
"A small degree of risk inevitably accompanies the thrill of speeding through curves and loops, defying gravity or, in bumper cars, engaging in the mock violence of low-speed collisions," Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the majority. "Those who voluntarily join in these activities also voluntarily take on their minor inherent risks."
Monday's decision extended a legal doctrine that has limited liability for risky sports, such as football, to now include recreational activities.
"Where the doctrine applies to a recreational activity," Werdegar wrote, "operators, instructors and participants …owe other participants only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity."
Amusement parks will continue to be required to use the utmost care on thrill rides such as roller coasters, where riders surrender control to the operator. But on attractions where riders have some control, the parks can be held liable only if their conduct unreasonably raised the dangers.
"Low-speed collisions between the padded, independently operated cars are inherent in — are the whole point of — a bumper car ride," Werdegar wrote.
Parks that fail to provide routine safety measures such as seat belts, adequate bumpers and speed controls might be held liable for an injury, but operators should not be expected to restrict where a bumper car is bumped, the court said.
The justices noted that the state inspected the Great America rides annually, and the maintenance and safety staff checked on the bumper cars the day Nalwa broke her wrist. The ride was functioning normally.
Reports showed that bumper car riders at the park suffered 55 injuries — including bruises, cuts, scrapes and strains — in 2004 and 2005, but Nalwa's injury was the only fracture. Nalwa said her wrist snapped when she tried to brace herself by putting her hand on the dashboard.
Rosenberg said the injury stemmed from the head-on collision. He said the company had configured bumper rides in other parks to avoid such collisions and made the Santa Clara ride uni-directional after the lawsuit was filed.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard dissented, complaining that the decision would saddle trial judges "with the unenviable task of determining the risks of harm that are inherent in a particular recreational activity."
"Whether the plaintiff knowingly assumed the risk of injury no longer matters," Kennard said.