Fans of those popular bumper car rides at amusement parks such as Great America or Santa Cruz's Boardwalk take heed -- you can't sue if that extra bumping leaves you with a bump on the noggin or some other injury.
The California Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Great America and other amusement parks cannot be sued for injuries that occur in the jostling of rides such as bumper cars, finding that such thrill-seeking carries an "inherent risk" akin to playing a sport.
In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the arguments of a South Bay doctor who sued Santa Clara's Great America theme park after she broke her wrist while riding the "Rue Le Dodge" bumper car ride with her son in 2005. The ruling overturned the San Jose-based 6th District Court of Appeal, which in 2011 concluded that amusement park patrons should be able to sue for such incidents.
"The risk of injuries from bumping was inherent in the Rue le Dodge ride, and under our precedents (the park) had no duty of ordinary care to prevent injuries from such an inherent risk of the activity," Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the court.
The Supreme Court in the past has barred lawsuits that occur when people take ordinary risks in sports such as football and skiing, under the legal theory that there is "an assumption of risk" in such activities. Great America's lawyers argued that a bumper car ride falls in a similar legal category, and the Supreme Court agreed.
The Supreme Court has found roller coaster operators have a substantial obligation to ensure safety, but the bumper car case presented different legal circumstances that would have made park owners more vulnerable to lawsuits. A host of recreation businesses, from the ski industry to health clubs, backed Great America in the case.
Justice Joyce Kennard dissented, agreeing with the lower court's finding that a jury should decide whether Great America was negligent in failing to take steps to prevent bumper car head-on collisions.
The lawsuit was filed by Smriti Nalwa, identified in court papers as a San Jose doctor who took her young son and daughter to Great America in July 2005. Court papers show that Nalwa was one of 55 people injured on the bumper car ride among hundreds of thousands of riders over a two-year period, although she was the only patron to suffer a fracture.
In 2006, a year after the accident, Cedar Fair Entertainment, Great America's owners, added an island in the middle to keep bumper car drivers headed in the same direction and minimize head-on collisions, as was done at other parks around the country.
Mark Rosenberg, Nalwa's lawyer, said amusement park owners are now "off the hook" if they operate bumper car rides negligently, even though he insisted consumer safety advocates would try to limit the effect of the Supreme Court's decision.
"Amusement park patrons are less safe today than they were yesterday," he warned.
But Stephen Renick, the park's lawyers, said the Supreme Court established needed legal guidance on whether participating in recreational activities such as amusement park rides should be treated the same as playing a sport.
"It definitely provides clarity," he said. "The courts had gone all over the place on this."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236; follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.