As excruciatingly detail-oriented as things can get with Sundher’s haunted attractions, there’s a method to his madness. Without proper supervision and care, the horrors can quickly leave the haunted house and enter the courthouse.
The terrors of haunted houses, Halloween mazes and other seasonal, scary attractions are the kind we’re usually able to escape the second we reach the exit sign. In a maze of ghosts, goblins and jump scares, those who enter these attractions are probably not thinking of enduring a real-life ghastly fate–like a slip-and-fall. But of course, accidents happen. And when they occur at haunted houses because of negligence or misconduct by the owners of staff, the victim has every right to sue and make it a really scary day for them as well. For haunted attractions big and small, these types of personal injury cases can impact both parties involved, long after Halloween is over.
In the midst of the first real Halloween season since the pandemic shutdown in 2020, the flood of anxious patrons and attraction owners eager to get back out there to make up for lost time and profits could potentially lead to some horrifying consequences.
“There’s employees that frankly are just very busy dealing with a lot of people, and they may miss something or do something incorrectly. And a lot of times that leads to people getting injured at these parks now that we’re heading into Halloween and holiday time,” says Robert Abiri, a personal injury attorney at Custodio & Dubey, LLP, in Los Angeles. “There might be even a bit of a rubber band effect. People missed out last year so they want to kind of push even stronger this year, really get out there and let loose.”
House of Hazards
Sundher says the demand for haunted attractions has only gone up this year as people search for more ways to be scared that don’t involve the pandemic.
“We’ve actually done reasonably well this year with our haunted attractions. There was a pent-up interest in traveling and being entertained, because people were kind of shut in their homes,” Sundher says. “So we have seen a revival across our different facilities in 2021.”
Southern California in particular is home to a lot of major haunted attractions–the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, Knott’s Scary Farm, and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, to name a few big ones. But there are also thousands of local, independent operations that pop up every year. From local haunted mazes to giant theme parks, these Halloween attractions offer a wide variety of thrills. Unfortunately, the attempt to pretend you’re in imminent danger could create an accident with truly damaging injuries.
“There’s a good number of them that happen when you’re exiting or entering a ride or a maze. Usually there’s either an unseen step down involved or a step up,” Abiri says. “Some of the vehicles and ride mechanisms you get into [are designed with] odd angles. For younger people or older people might be more difficult.”
Slips, trips and falls due to dim light, fog or patrons wearing face coverings and loose clothing are common, Abiri says. These accidents can cause injuries that range from minor bumps and bruises to traumatic brain injuries. Then, of course, there are the cases where actors who get paid to terrorize people at these attractions go too far and end up touching people inappropriately or physically harming them. Add in the possibility of falling props, carbon monoxide poisoning from all the fog, and the possibility of getting trampled by people running from headless ghosts, and suddenly there are some potentially frightening scenarios posed by haunted attractions that go beyond the spirit world.
Scaring Up a Good Case
With all this potential for injury, shouldn’t there be some laws to keep haunted attraction-goers safe?
Under premises liability law in California including California Civil Code section 1714, property and business owners have a duty to provide a reasonably safe and secure environment for their guests. Haunted houses also fall under this jurisdiction. While haunted house visitors expect to be scared, they don’t expect to be injured. In cases where a guest is injured by a poorly maintained haunted house or by the inappropriate actions of one of its employees, owners of the attraction could be found liable for the damages.
In cases involving haunted houses, there are two distinct issues that can apply. One is an express assumption of risk — usually involving a release of liability that a guest would sign before entering the attraction. Then there’s the primary assumption of risk, which means that by participating in an activity, typically a recreational or sporting activity, you assume the inherent risks of that activity.
Though the signing of a release can limit a plaintiff’s paths to successfully arguing a case against a haunted attraction, they still have the ability to show negligence on the part of the attraction owners that lead to an accident or injury, Abiri says. “Showing that negligence is one of the key points in trying to make a valid claim against the theme park or attraction park,” he said.
There are a number of ways to show negligence against a haunted attraction, Abiri says. One is to show proof of a hazardous condition or potentially dangerous condition on the property presenting an unreasonable risk of harm. From there, a plaintiff and their attorney need to successfully show that the property owner, or haunted house owner, should have been aware of the dangerous condition and did not warn guests or attempt to remedy the issue that led to the injury of a tenant or patron.
Every claim of negligence requires sufficient proof to support the claim, either in the form of photographs, video footage, eyewitness accounts, or medical records. The components needed to show negligence, including proof that the haunted attraction owner owed a duty to the plaintiff and breached that legal duty through specific actions. They must also show causation on the part of the owner and their actions and specific damages endured by the plaintiff, either through medical expenses, lost wages or potential loss of income.
While it might seem that issues arising from patrons being overly terrified or experiencing emotional distress may be a valid claim, personal attorney Tony Ellrod of L.A. firm Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester, who has represented several haunted attractions and theme park owners in California, says that these cases are a lot harder for a plaintiff to win without a physical injury.
“Negligent infliction of emotional distress is a difficult claim by itself,” Ellrod says. “And typically someone needs to have sustained a personal injury, not just a psychological injury.”
Ellrod said that if a patron signs a release, that’s often the silver bullet for attraction owners that makes most personal injury cases dead on arrival. “For release of liability, you don’t even do an analysis on it until there’s proof of negligence,” Ellrod says.
A Cautionary Tale
One of the more influential cases in the realm of haunted house litigation is Griffin v. The Haunted Hotel, Inc. (2015) 242 Cal.App.4th 490. The Haunted Hotel operates four Halloween attractions in San Diego County, including The Haunted Trail, located in Balboa Park. The Haunted Trail is open from September through October, ending on Halloween. In October 2011, plaintiff Scott Griffin bought a ticket for The Haunted Trail. The attraction is an outdoor haunt where actors in scary masks and makeup pop out of dark spaces inches away from patrons, holding fake knives, axes, chainsaws, severed body parts and other props.
After passing through what he believed was the exit for the haunt, Griffin was unexpectedly confronted by a final scare–a technique known as the “Carrie” effect because patrons are led to believe the attraction is over, only to receive one more big scare at the end. In this case, an actor wielding a fake, gas-powered chainsaw chased Griffin, who tried to run away but took a nasty fall and was injured during the chase.
Griffin sued The Haunted Hotel, Inc., claiming negligence and assault. However, the trial court granted Haunted Hotel’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that under the primary assumption of risk doctrine, Haunted Hotel did not breach any duty to Griffin.
“The risk that a patron will be frightened, run, and fall is inherent in the fundamental nature of a haunted house attraction like The Haunted Trail,” the Superior Court of San Diego ruled. “Moreover, on this record there is no evidence creating a triable issue [that] Haunted Hotel unreasonably increased the risk of injury beyond those inherent risks or acted recklessly.” A court of appeal later affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Haunted Hotel.
“If you go to a place to get scared and they scare you, when you run away and you hurt yourself, that’s exactly the risk that you need to assume,” Ellrod says. “Primary assumption of risk relieves the defending of a duty to the plaintiff. So, without a duty, there can be no breach of duty and therefore, there can be no negligence.”
Not All Haunts Are Created Equal
Though it can be a high bar for personal injury cases against haunted attractions to be successful, there are times, Abiri says, when guests are too scared of the company producing the attraction to even sue in the first place.
“I can see that happening a lot when someone gets injured and it’s at Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm. There’s a little bit of intimidation with such a kind of behemoth of a corporation that could dissuade someone [from filing a claim] even though they’re legitimately due some money or other compensation,” the attorney says. Most personal injury attorneys in California are willing to take cases on a contingency basis, meaning there will be no cost to the plaintiff unless a case is successful.
As for the haunted attractions themselves, considering the wide threshold of professionalism that exists between a backyard haunted maze, a local carnival ride and a major theme park, each attraction will have a different level of attention to detail that’s worth considering before you decide to pay money to walk in.
“I would suspect that those companies that operate attractions year-round would probably be better-run than those that open up for Halloween,” Ellrod says. “They just have the experience in running attractions, and it’s all about consumer experience, so they don’t want to do anything that is going to be negative…you want it to be an exciting experience, but you also want it to be safe.”
For Sundher, who prides himself on presenting a professional, high-end haunt, solving problems with potential accidents and lawsuits before they happen comes down to proper maintenance, management of staff and good design.
“You have to make sure that you’re working with people that have done this for a long time, and understand all those little hiccups,” he said. After all, Sundher would prefer the bloodcurdling screams of his guests to come from fear — not from injuries.
© The Regents of the University of California, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.