Operators of roller coasters and other amusement park rides must be held to the same safety standards that apply to buses, planes and other modes of public transport, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The state's highest court ruled 4-3 in favor of the family of a 23-year-old woman who sued the Walt Disney Co. after she suffered a brain injury and eventually died after riding the Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., five years ago.
The court ruled that amusement park rides are "common carriers" because they offer rides to the public. Therefore, operators are legally liable to provide the same degree of care and safety required by other common carriers — a legal category that includes planes, trains, elevators and ski lifts.
"The Supreme Court has upheld the rights of consumers to have thrill rides that are safe," said the plaintiff's attorney, Barry Novack. "Whether you're going on a ride to be thrilled or for any other reason, that shouldn't dictate the safety that you're owed."
But amusement park operators, who argued that thrill rides don't belong in the same category as trains and buses, worried that the ruling would lead to more lawsuits without making parks safer, said John Robinson, CEO of the California Attractions and Parks Association, which filed a legal brief supporting Disney.
"This is a legal technicality that opens the floodgates of senseless litigation," Robinson said. "We still feel there's a fundamental difference between an amusement park ride and a transportation system such as a bus, plane or train."
Disney attorneys said they would look into asking for a rehearing of the case. The company would not comment beyond a statement saying, "While we disagree with the decision, it has nothing to do with the safety of our parks. Our commitment to guest safety always has been, and continues to be unwavering."
Christina Moreno, who had traveled to California on her honeymoon with her new husband, suffered a brain hemorrhage and ran up more than $1.3 million in medical expenses in her native Spain before she died in September 2000. In their wrongful death lawsuit, her family attributed her injuries to the "violent shaking and stresses imposed by the ride."
Moreno's family plans to move ahead with a civil lawsuit against Disney, and the case could go to trial by early next year, Novack said.
The case is Gomez v. Walt Disney Co., S118489.