Appeals Court: Please Don't Run Away From the Maniac With Chainsaw

If you do, and get hurt, don't blame the haunted theme park. A public service advisory from The Hollywood Reporter.

On last week's episode of The Simpsons titled "Halloween of Horrors," Lisa Simpson goes into a state of panic after visiting a frightening theme park full of actors carrying chainsaws, dressed as zombies and otherwise performing devilish and ghostly feats. (See clip below.)

Meanwhile, in "real life," a California appeals court handed down a decision on Friday in a case involving a man named Scott Griffin, who sued over injuries suffered during a 2011 trip to The Haunted Hotel, a theme park in San Diego.

"The Haunted Trail features actors in ghoulish costumes who frighten, startle and sometimes chase patrons amid loud noises and flashing strobe lights in a one mile loop," reports California appeals court justice Gilbert Nares. "Patrons follow a narrow trail in the natural park setting, passing from one horror set to the next, each telling a different gruesome story. Along the way, actors jump out of dark spaces or spring from around corners, often inches away from patrons, holding bloody prop knives, axes or other weapons, or a severed body part."

The theme park, of course, has plenty of disclaimers and warnings for patrons not to run lest they get injured (as one bulletin put it, "Oh, you will be scared shitless and try to run away, but in the end our creatures will chase you down like the chickens that you are"), plus employs off-duty police officers and an emergency medical technician service. 

All that is fine and dandy, but then there's the theme park's exit, the end of the attraction. Here's Nares describing what comes next.

"What follows is something Haunted Hotel calls the 'Carrie' effect, a final scare patterned after the closing scene of the horror movie Carrie when the audience is led to believe that the terror is over, only to be given one last jolting scare," he writes. "When patrons have walked through the opening in the fence, they regroup on the park access road, thinking the attraction is over. But this is a fake exit. The access road is controlled by Haunted Hotel. A chainsaw-wielding actor with a gas powered chainsaw suddenly appears, starts the chainsaw, and charges at the patrons—providing a final scare."

Naturally, patrons start running, despite being warning not to do so. Some fall. Griffin, whose been to other scary theme parks before, wasn't expecting the end. He testified that a "gentleman" with a chainsaw came at him. He told the man to "stop," and when the actor didn't, Griffin didn't walk. He ran. 

"I really got scared because he was really at me," he said during his deposition. "He selected me... He was pointing it [chainsaw] right at me and it was live and active; you could literally smell the gas... hear the sound and everything...It was a real chainsaw."

Running away, Griffin fell and injured his wrist.

Later, he would sue for negligence, improper training and supervision, and assault. The case would examine whether Grifin assumed risk, which delved into the nature of Haunted Hotel's conduct and where exactly the show ended. Haunted Hotel won on summary judgment, which is how the dispute landed at the appeals court.

Nares rejects the theory that Griffin's "subjective fear" mattered. The plaintiff tried to argue that he was not scared by the "fun," but rather by an irresponsible employee mishandling a chainsaw. The justice responds it's counter to Griffin's testimony of thinking the show was over. "The risk inherent in the Haunted Trail's Carrie effect ending... is exactly the risk Griffin experienced," states the opinion.

The justice also dismisses the argument that Griffin couldn't assume risk because the injury happened outside the boundary of the Haunted Trail. "Griffin's argument fails because the boundaries of the attraction are defined by Haunted Hotel, not its patrons," continues the opinion.

What's more, Nares also rejects Griffin's theory that when he told the actor to "stop," Griffin revoked consent. Basically, implied consent wasn't even material, the justice says. The real issue was assumption of risk.

Here's the rest of the opinion that concludes Haunted Hotel hadn't behaved irresponsibly. Its ultimate conclusion: "Being chased within the physical confines of The Haunted Trail by a chainsaw carrying maniac is a fundamental part and inherent risk of this amusement. Griffin voluntarily paid money to experience it. It is not the function of tort law to police such conduct."

And just for kicks, here's some words of advice from the theme park operator.

"You scare the hell out of them as much as you possibly can, and that's what they're paying us for, that's why they come," said a rep for Haunted Hotel during a deposition. Griffin "was never in harm... He ran. He chose to run. You can't chase a human that doesn't run. If he had just stood there and said 'stop,' then it's not fun. You move on. You scare somebody else."

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