Monday, November 23, 2015
Court of Appeal Orders Publication of ‘Haunted’ Opinion
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal Friday ordered publication of its opinion affirming judgment in favor of the operator of a Halloween attraction, who was sued after a patron fell and injured himself.
Div. One had previously rejected the prevailing defendant’s request to publish the Oct. 23 opinion. But in its brief order Friday, the court said it was subsequently persuaded by other requestors, including counsel for a trade group of operators of entertainment venues, that the case, Griffin v. The Haunted Hotel, Inc., D066715, should be citable.
The Haunted Hotel, Inc. operates four Halloween attractions in San Diego County, including Balboa Park’s “Haunted Trail.” Scott Griffin sued the company after being injured in October 2011.
Griffin fell while running away from an actor who was wielding what the plaintiff believed to be an operable chainsaw. The device was actually a prop, the chain having been removed.
The defendant said Griffin was subjected to the attraction’s so-called “Carrie” effect. As in the movie of the same name, the experience appears to have come to an end, but the operator has in fact thrown one last scare into the mix.
Justice Gilbert Nares explained in his opinion:
“The Haunted Trail features actors in ghoulish costumes who frighten, startle and sometimes chase patrons amid loud noises and flashing strobe lights in a one mile loop….Patrons follow a narrow trail in the natural park setting, passing from one horror set to the next, each telling a different gruesome story. Along the way, actors jump out of dark spaces or spring from around corners, often inches away from patrons, holding bloody prop knives, axes or other weapons, or a severed body part.”
At what appears to be the end of the attraction, there is a fence with an opening.
“When patrons have walked through the opening in the fence, they regroup on the park access road, thinking the attraction is over,” Nares explained. “But this is a fake exit. The access road is controlled by Haunted Hotel. A chainsaw-wielding actor with a gas powered chainsaw suddenly appears, starts the chainsaw, and charges at the patrons—providing a final scare…. During this last encounter, patrons are most prone to run away, with the actor giving chase.”
Griffin said in his deposition he had previously been unfamiliar with the attraction, but chose to attend with friends. He said he had attended other Halloween attractions, including Knott’s “Scary” Farm.
The attraction was fun, he said, until after he exited, believing it was “clear that we were done with the experience.” As he and his friends giggled and laughed, he said, someone came at him with a chainsaw.
He said he “started running away because it felt unsafe with his chainsaw because he was pointing it at me.”
“This gentlemen did not keep a safe distance. . . and the more I backed away, the more he followed me. I asked him to stop; he wouldn’t. I started running. He was literally running after me. And I really felt unsafe. And then I started getting really fearful that something was going to happen, because here’s some stranger—I don’t even know who he is—with a live, active chainsaw running after me with it.
“…. I was fearful for my safety big time.”
He also testified:
“I really felt that he could have tripped, that chainsaw could have fell down, and I could dangerously [sic] get hurt by it. That’s what I felt.”
He continued running until he fell down and injured his wrist.
A representative of the attraction testified that the purpose of the attraction is to “scare the hell out of them as much as you possibly can” without hurting anyone. Griffin “was never in harm,” he said.
He said the actors never chase someone who tells them to stop because it’s “not fun” if the person isn’t running away.
Trial Court Ruling
San Diego Superior Court Judge Katherine A. Bacal granted The Haunted Hotel’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing with the defendant that Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th. 1148, extending the primary assumption of risk doctrine to similar attractions, controlled.
Rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that his case was distinguishable because the “Carrie” scare occurred outside the attraction, Bacal noted that “all the activities took place on and within defendant’s boundaries, although plaintiff was unaware of that fact.”
Griffin “was still within the scary experience he purchased,” the judge said. “[W]ho would want to go to a haunted house that is not scary?,” she wrote.
The appellate panel agreed, rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that a jury question existed as to whether the defendant’s employees’ conduct expanded the risk beyond that inherent in the activity.
Whether the defendant has expanded the risk is an aspect of the defendant’s duty and thus an issue of law, Nares explained.
“The risk inherent in the Haunted Trail’s Carrie effect ending—that a patron would be lulled into a false sense of safety by a fake exit, and then be confronted with an extreme scare event that would cause the person to flee (and fall while fleeing)—is exactly the risk Griffin experienced,” the justice concluded.
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