Under the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, a property owner has no duty to protect a plaintiff against risks that are inherent in a sporting or recreational activity if the activity involves an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants and the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity. Traditionally, the doctrine has been applied to sporting activities. For example, being injured by a tackle in a football game is an inherent risk of the sport.
Over the last few years, however, the Courts of Appeal in California have expanded this traditional scope by applying the primary assumption of the risk doctrine to strictly “recreational” activities, as opposed to sporting activities. For instance, three years ago the Court of Appeal held that the doctrine applied to risks inherent in using bumper cars. California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal has now continued this trend in the new case of Griffin v. The Haunted Hotel, Inc., finding that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine applied in a case in which the plaintiff was injured while participating in a Halloween-themed haunted trail walk.
In Griffin, the plaintiff purchased a ticket to experience The Haunted Trail, an outdoor haunted house type of attraction where actors jump out of dark spaces holding prop knives, axes, and chainsaws. After passing what he believed was the exit, the plaintiff unexpectedly was confronted by an actor wielding a gas-powered chainsaw (with the chain removed). The actor approached the plaintiff, frightened him, and chased the plaintiff when he ran away. The plaintiff fell while fleeing and injured his wrist. He sued The Haunted Hotel, Inc., which operated The Haunted Trail, alleging negligence and assault.
The Court opined that the purpose of The Haunted Trail was to scare people, and the risk that someone would become scared and react by running away could not be eliminated without changing the basic character of the activity. The risk was therefore found to be inherent in the fundamental nature of The Haunted Trail. There was also no evidence that the defendant unreasonably increased the risk of injury beyond those inherent risks or acted recklessly.
In addition, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the primary assumption of risk doctrine did not apply because the plaintiff believed he had exited The Haunted Trail when the final scare occurred. It was undisputed that the Haunted Hotel controlled the area where the final scare occurred and the Court held that the boundaries of the attraction were defined by The Haunted Hotel, not its patrons. The Court therefore granted summary judgment in favor of The Haunted Hotel.
This case reinforces the continued protection of property owners against suits arising from risks inherent in sporting and recreational activities occurring on the owners’ properties.