Darth Vader was shooing away a bird at Disneyland when he smacked a woman in the back – according to the lawsuit she filed claiming such “severe injuries” as back pain, headaches and trouble sleeping.
Scores of other visitors to Orange County’s showcase theme parks have gone to court in recent years with accusations of dangerous mistakes, accidents large and small, and lots of slippery floors. A review of nearly 200 lawsuits found that the woman who claimed injury at the swiping hand of Vader – and who declined to talk about it – was hardly alone in seeking compensation after a visit to the park.
Disneyland, for example, has been sued by a man who claimed Tweedledee wrenched his arm, and also by a woman who said she was badly injured by a windblown umbrella.
Knott’s Berry Farm was brought to court by a man who said he was punched in the face during a hypnotist show, and by a woman who fractured her ankle on a broken curb.
No single ride stood out in a review of nearly 140 court cases filed against Disneyland and 50 filed against Knott’s in the past five years. In fact, the biggest cause of injury by far was the ground itself: about one-third of the cases involved people slipping, tripping or falling.
“If someone came to my house and slipped on my floor, I’d have to pay for them,” said Tanya Fry of Victorville, who sued Disney and lost after she claimed she slipped on a wet boardwalk. “That’s what insurance is for.”
Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm declined through their spokespeople to comment for this article.
The two parks and their corporate owners present big targets for lawsuits by those who claim injury. Knott’s parent company, Cedar Fair, reported more than $1 billion in net revenue in 2011. Disney brought in nearly $12 billion from its parks and resorts alone.
The Orange County Register reviewed five years of Orange County court filings that named Disneyland, the Walt Disney companies, Knott’s Berry Farm or Cedar Fair. The review focused only on civil and small-claims lawsuits that involved the parks themselves, not on federal lawsuits or those filed outside of Orange County.
PETTING ZOO DOG
Among the lawsuits the Register found:
•A family sued Disney in 2008, saying a petting-zoo dog attacked their 2-year-old daughter at Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch, snapping its jaws around her right eye. The family settled out of court days before the case was scheduled to go to trial. The petting zoo does not have dogs on display these days.
•A man sued Disney after he jumped up and grabbed a wooden beam in front of the now-closed Mission Tortilla Factory at California Adventure – and sliced his hands on anti-bird spikes. He dropped the case a few months later; his attorney declined to comment.
•A couple won a $98 refund from Knott’s after they complained that traffic was so heavy during a “Scary Farm” Halloween event that they couldn’t even get to the park. A court official rejected the rest of the $1,000 that they claimed for the hassle.
•A woman who says her muscular dystrophy makes it hard for her to walk has fought Disney for nearly five years for the right to ride a Segway in the park.
Both Disney and Knott’s settled far more cases than they took to trial, the records show. Disney, for example, settled with the man who claimed a Tweedledee character hit and injured his arm; Knott’s settled with the man who said he was punched in the face as he danced in a mosh pit under hypnotism.
Those and other settlements all came with a secrecy clause. But occasional court filings suggest that the terms could involve as little as a few free park tickets.
The parks almost always responded to the lawsuits with a stock set of legal defenses, records show. They argued, for example, that any injury was caused by the visitor’s own negligence and that visitors assume some responsibility for their own well-being. They rarely lost a case outright.
The parks were found at fault in only a handful of small-claims cases in the past five years. Each lost just one big Orange County jury trial.
Disney was ordered to pay $546,000 to a woman who said she suffered seizures after a food-court umbrella, caught by the wind, hit her in the head. Knott’s was found partially at fault – to the tune of nearly $71,000 – after a woman tripped on a gap in a planter curb and fractured her ankle.
“The last thing you want to do is go against a very well-known and likable entity,” said her attorney, Tyler Offenhauser. “You do anything and everything to mediate the lawsuit.”
Disneyland’s Matterhorn drew four lawsuits, more than any other ride in the past five years – for reasons that included an unexpected stop and a trip-and-fall. At Knott’s, the most frequently sued rides were the GhostRider, the Rip Tide and the Timber Mountain Log Ride, with two suits each.
By comparison, 40 lawsuits at the Disney parks and 15 at Knott’s involved people who fell and claimed the ground was uneven or the floor was slippery. One woman, for example, said she was hurt when she slid on eggs on the floor of Goofy’s Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel; she later settled out of court.
Legal and industry experts said they had not seen a tally of lawsuits against theme parks before and could not comment on the numbers at the Disney parks and Knott’s. But they pointed out that the number of visitors to each park – nearly 16 million to Disneyland, more than 6 million to California Adventure and about 3.6 million to Knott’s in 2010 – more than dwarfed the number of lawsuits.
“Like most businesses that welcome large numbers of customers, amusement parks are not immune from litigation,” Colleen K. Mangone, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said in a statement.
“While some may be legitimate, some are frivolous and either dismissed or the venue is not found liable,” she added. “In both cases, dealing with them is part of any business.”
Or, as USC law Professor Greg Keating put it: “You’re going to screw up a certain amount of the time.” Speaking generally, he said the most grievous cases might be those that never make it into court. Big companies such as Disney and Knott’s, he said, have an incentive to settle quickly and quietly if they’re clearly in the wrong – to keep the details out of a court file.
California law also makes it easier to win in court against theme parks, holding them liable not just for outright negligence, but also for the “slightest failure of care,” said Denis Binder, a law professor at Chapman University. Nonetheless, he said, “It’s very difficult to win a case in Orange County.
“You still have to show they did something wrong,” he said. “And that’s why Disney’s image is so important. They’re known for safety.”
Teri James took Disney to court in 2009, saying a man stumbled out of a rowdy Downtown Disney concert and fell on her daughter, fracturing her arm. She tried to get the case moved out of Orange County and closer to her home in Sacramento. In the end, her case became just another statistic. More than a quarter of those filed against Knott’s in the past five years were dismissed; so were a third of those filed against Disney – including hers.
“We weren’t out there seeking all this money,” James said. “All we wanted was the (medical) cost, and then to replace the vacation we lost. We weren’t looking for anything out of this.”