With the Fourth of July celebrations just behind us, it’s a good time to revisit the concept of event liability in light of the Simi Valley fireworks accident which injured several people and put a few in the hospital. For most of us, shows and events are a fantastic way to enjoy some time away from home, mingle with people who share our interests, spot our favorite performers, or just enjoy the show. But once in a while things go wrong and it is important to remember that you might have legal recourse for injuries you receive while attending a show or event that goes south.
A branch of premises liability
Premises liability law deals with the responsibility property owners owe to their guests. This is a broad area of law that can potentially encompass many factual situations and has significant tie-ins with related fields of law such as negligent security, about which I have already written. My focus today is on the potential liability of businesses or other entities that host special events such as fireworks shows, sporting events, parades, musical performances, movie premiers, launch parties, marathons, meet-ups, worship services, and other organized gatherings.
A duty to guests
The organizers of an event have a special duty to attendees to ensure that the event premises are reasonably safe and to avoid creating hazards through their own actions. As in the case of negligent security litigation, the list of things that an event organizer must consider is not specifically defined in the law. Rather, organizers have a responsibility to think through an event during the planning stages and consider what things might go wrong, and then to take reasonable steps to prevent those accidents. This might include such things as:
- Ensuring adequate lighting
- Proper grounds maintenance
- Adequate security
- Appropriate crowd control management – including aisles, walkways, gates, and barriers
- Avoiding overcrowding
- Properly managing the sale or use of alcohol
- Ensuring that event staff levels are adequate, and that staff are properly trained and equipped
- Providing adequate restroom and drinking fountain facilities to reduce congestion
- Posting signage which clearly marks entrances, pathways, exits, and restrooms
- Preparing and updating management and contingency plans
- Effectively warning guests about known dangers
- Preparing and implementing crowd control and emergency evacuation procedures, when necessary
- A working public address system
This list is far from complete, and not every item listed here will be required in every setting, but what becomes clear from browsing through these items is the potentially complex nature of event liability cases. The specific facts of each individual case will ultimately determine the outcome for a given plaintiff. Experienced legal assistance is required to make the most of premises liability claims.
Assumption of risk
While premises owners and event organizers have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure attendee safety during a show or event, courts have repeatedly made clear that event organizers are not required to guarantee the total safety of guests. This means that there are limits on the circumstances that will lead to legal liability on the part of event organizers or property owners. A common barrier to liability is the doctrine of assumption of risk. Under this legal rule, attendees cannot recover from a defendant for injuries for which the guest accepted the risk. In other words, some things can generally be expected to happen at an event. For example, if a baseball fan is struck by a foul ball during a regular game, that person will be hard pressed to argue that the stadium should have prevented the resulting injury. Foul balls are a common occurrence during a game and people who attend the game must assume the ordinary risks of the event.
Contractual Assumption of risk
It is a common practice to require event participants to agree to a waiver of liability. In fact, some waivers are even printed on the back of ticket stubs or other entrance material and such waivers are often upheld. However, waivers are not effective if the landowner or event promoter is found to be grossly negligent or to have intentionally harmed the claimant.
Another potential barrier to recovery is the legal requirement that the event organizer’s negligence must be the legal cause of the injury in question. For example, some courts have held that where guests have options available to them, some of which would have prevented the injury in question, the guest, rather than the organizer, may be responsible for the injury. In one case, a plaintiff was unable to recover against a sports stadium when she could not explain why she had not stepped into an available side opening rather than remaining in the throng of people at an exit door where she was ultimately injured by the crowd.
In some situations public entities cannot be sued for injuries which occurred during an event. This is because governmental bodies are granted immunity from tort suits. This might mean that if the event at which you where injured was hosted by a government entity or its subdivisions, such as a local city or the parks department, you may not be able to collect any damages from them. However, governmental immunity is subject to many exceptions, making a thorough investigation of the facts and the law imperative. Suits against government entities in California are also subject to a six-month claim statute, which augments and substantially modifies the ordinary two-year statute of limitations on injury claims.
Suing a third party
Event organizers and property owners are not necessarily the only potentially liable parties. Sometimes product manufacturers may share responsibility for an injury. This is particularly true where the injury was caused by a defective device, as may be the case of the fireworks in Simi Valley. In other circumstances, participants, fans or others might contribute to an injury.