What should have been a day of fun and laughter turned deadly for an Ohio teenager who was visiting the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2016. Lauren Seitz was whitewater rafting at the recreational facility when her raft overturned. While in the water she was exposed to a rare and deadly amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, which was growing in the manmade river.
She returned home, feeling sick. Just 11 days later, she died from a brain infection caused by the amoeba. After this tragic incident, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took samples of the water, and it tested positive for Naegleria fowleri. These findings were deemed significant, as this amoeba had not been found in this particular environment before. The CDC claimed dirt and debris in the water hindered the sanitation process, allowing the amoeba to flourish.
Seitz’s family is suing the U.S. National Whitewater Center and its builder, Recreation Engineering and Planning Inc., in a wrongful death lawsuit. The family claims these parties were reckless and grossly negligent in their care and upkeep for the park, and should be held liable as such.
A lawsuit of this fashion begs the question: What responsibilities to recreational centers, amusement parks and other premises have when their patrons get injured?
The Basics of Premises Liability
Legal responsibilities regarding a patron’s safety falls under premises liability laws. Essentially, premises liability means property owners have certain duties for anyone who enters their property. However, the extent of that responsibility greatly varies, depending on the type of visitor. Additionally these laws may vary from state to state.
There are three broad categories of visitors: Invitees, licensees and trespassers. Invitees are the most common type of visitor to commercial properties and businesses. In the case of a visitor of an amusement park, the visitor has bought a ticket and is legally allowed on the property. A licensee is different, in that they are allowed to be on the property, but weren’t necessarily invited; this classification is almost never used when it comes to amusement parks or businesses in general. Finally, there are trespassers, who are obviously on the property without permission.
Regardless of the type of visitor, business owners have a “duty of care” for their customers. Even a trespasser is owed a minimal duty of care, which means property owners have to at least avoid causing intentional, unnecessary harm. The duty of care for invitees is much more stringent.
The Duty of Care for Invitees
First and most importantly, businesses such as amusement parks must ensure that their attractions are safe for use and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. For some attractions such as water parks and amusement parks, this means ensuring rides are regularly maintained and inspected, safety instructions are given and there is employee supervision while the ride is operational. For a park like the US National Whitewater Center, it may mean that lawyers for Ms. Seitz’s family will argue that the facility did not check the water with enough regularity to prevent the amoebas from infesting the manmade and maintained river.
The duty of care applies to other aspects as well. For instance, parks are supposed to keep the grounds clear of hazards. An example would be a pathway that is constantly wet due to a nearby water ride should potentially have signs to warn patrons that the path may be slick. Reported injuries on publicly accessible commercial businesses are common but many could be avoided when proper maintenance and inspection are priorities for the business owners.
What Duty of Care Doesn’t Cover
Not every injury or incident is a breach of duty of care. For instance, a teenager was recently injured at Six Flags Great Escape in New York because she fell out of a ride. However, an investigation revealed that she fell out due to her own actions, not because of malfunction with the ride. As such, the park did not breach its duty of care. Similarly, if a patron is told to keep their arms and legs inside the ride, but gets injured after ignoring those instructions, the park would likely have a strong defense against claims of negligence.
Every case is different and very factually intensive. For example if a park visitor enters a restricted area that is clearly marked as such, and gets injured, they would likely be treated as a trespasser. Under premise liability laws this classification affects the duty of care that was owed to them and whether or not they are owed compensation for their injuries. However, if signage was ambiguous or nonexistent or the injury was caused in a willful or grossly negligent matter, the park can still potentially be held responsible for injuries.
Liability May Not Be Clear
What about situations where the injured person was clearly not at fault but evidence of the negligence on the part of business is underwhelming? In the event of a ride that was properly maintained but poorly designed, liability may be dispersed to multiple parties such as the companies involved in designing and building the attraction. In some complicated scenarios these types of cases may involve multiple parties and defendants.
In some cases, people may be injured by the acts of a business’ employee or agent. Those situations are very factually dependent and may be contingent on how the injury occurred and in what capacity the agent or employee was working. A case involving a customer injured intentionally by an employee is very different from a case where an employee causes an injury due to oversight or negligence.
There is a common misconception that a property owner or business is always responsible for any injury that occurs on their property. As you can see, these cases hinge on the facts and involve issues that are not always cut and dry. Additionally issues such as governmental immunity, contributory negligence and causation can be relevant factors in assessing liability for injuries that occur on private property. It will be very interesting to see all of the facts that come to light when the case against the U.S. National Whitewater Center is litigated. Regardless of liability, hopefully the case results in the prevention of further injuries.