Keeping Amusement Parks Safe

August 29, 2016

Whether we enjoy Disneyworld in December, a waterpark in the fall, or a carnival in the summertime, we expect amusement park property and amusement park rides to be safe for our families.

Sadly, the country’s amusements parks have seen a series of tragedies in the past months.  The son of a Kansas state legislator died on a waterslide at the Schlitterbahn waterpark in Kansas City.  Three girls fell 30 feet from a Ferris wheel gondola at a county fair in Greenville, Tennessee.  Another girl’s scalp was ripped off on a carnival ride in Omaha, Nebraska.  And a toddler was taken by an alligator on Disney property in Florida.  These incidents naturally raise questions.  Could they have been prevented?  And by whom?  Is anyone responsible for making sure that rides and park areas are safe for patrons?

The answer is: it’s complicated.

Under American premises liability law, an amusement park has a duty to its customers to make sure that its rides and property are safe.  This means that the park must not only fix any threats to health and safety that it knows about, but also must actively inspect for unknown dangers, and then fix them.   This legal rule does not create any type of governmental oversight before an accident -- it only provides the legal theory to win lawsuits after disaster.

To supplement this, state and federal governmental law comes into play.  Each state’s government is responsible for regulating the rides that are permanently fixed within its state boundaries.  Some states also regulate the safety of portable, carnival-type rides.   In addition, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission reviews the safety of portable rides that travel from state to state.  This means that there is no overarching legislation that regulates the safety of amusement parks on a national level.

And state regulation is remarkably patchy.  Some states, such as California, require officials to inspect rides and investigate accidents.  In Illinois, the state inspects amusement rides 30 days before operation, and once a year after that.  The Illinois Department of Labor shuts down rides that are not safe, and these rides may not re-open until the state issues a new permit, or the park provides proof of a million dollar liability insurance policy.  However, inspections may be waived, if the operator provides proof of inspection by another agency. 

Other states, such as Colorado, do not have governmental oversight, but require parks to carry insurance.  The means that the state is essentially out-sourcing ride safety testing, as insurance underwriters evaluate ride safety before liability policies are issued. 

But some states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Nevada, South Dakota and Utah have entirely opted out; those states do not provide any governmental oversight of amusement park rides. 

Kansas, the location of the Schlitterbahn Park where the waterslide death occurred, requires annual inspection of permanent amusement park rides.  However, inspections may be conducted by private, park-hired inspectors, not by governmental employees.  This is also true of the Disney parks in Florida.  And under Kansas law, only random audits are made of the park operator’s records following self-inspection.

Interestingly, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission once regulated all amusement park rides.  But that changed in 1981, when Congress limited its authority to carnivals, probably due to amusement park lobbying.  We know that park lobbying against federal amusement park oversight continues.  And introducing a national program of inspection would require the hiring of federal amusement park inspectors.  This, naturally, would increase the federal budget, and, therefore, raise taxes.  Raising taxes is never popular.

But Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.”  Whether we want our civilization to include national amusement park inspections is currently the subject of political debate.