Primary Assumption of Risk Doctrine Not Limited to Sports, Supreme Court Explains

Publish Date:Jan 04, 2013
Summary:
In a 6-1 decision handed down on December 31, 2012, the California Supreme Court held that the primary assumption of risk doctrine barred a negligence lawsuit against an amusement park for an injury that occurred on a bumper car ride.
In a 6-1 decision handed down on December 31, 2012, the California Supreme Court held that the primary assumption of risk doctrine barred a negligence lawsuit against an amusement park for an injury that occurred on a bumper car ride.

Dr. Smriti Nalwa rode in a bumper car with her son at an amusement park. Her bumper car was bumped from the front and then from behind. She braced herself, and her wrist was fractured. Nalwa sued the amusement park, alleging the park was negligent. The trial court granted the park’s motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling, and the case went to the California Supreme Court.

The amusement park argued that Nalwa’s negligence lawsuit was barred by the doctrine of primary assumption of risk.  The doctrine was introduced in the California Supreme Court’s decision in Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296. The doctrine is an exception to the general duty of ordinary care. Under the doctrine, participants and operators of certain activities owe only the duty not to act so as to increase the risk of injury over that inherent in the activity.

The Knight case and subsequent decisions applied the doctrine to sports.  Nalwa contended that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk is limited to sports.

The Supreme Court disagreed with Nalwa. The court explained that the doctrine is not limited to sports, but applies as well to other recreational activities “involving an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants … where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.”

The Supreme Court concluded that a bumper car collision is a recreational activity to which the doctrine properly applies. The court agreed with the justice who dissented from the Court of Appeal’s decision when he observed that imposing liability based on the ordinary duty of care “would have the likely effect of the amusement park either eliminating the ride altogether or altering its character to such a degree—by, for example, significantly decreasing the speed at which the minicars could operate—that the fun of bumping would be eliminated, thereby discouraging patrons from riding. Indeed, who would want to ride a tapper car at an amusement park?”

The Supreme Court held that the amusement park had no duty of ordinary care to prevent Nalwa’s injury from the inherent risk related to bumper cars, and thus concluded, “The absence of such a duty defeats plaintiff’s cause of action for negligence as a matter of law.”

In her dissent, Justice Kennard reiterated her objection to the doctrine of primary assumption of risk and characterized the Knight decision as “a radical transformation of California’s tort law.”

A copy of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. is available at www.courts.ca.gov
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