Before you step into a haunted house attraction this Halloween season, you might be prompted to sign or at least offer an electronic acknowledgment of a waiver. These documents make it clear that patrons entering a spooky gauntlet of chainsaw-wielding goons and bloody terrors are assuming a certain level of risk. Running away from an axe-toting maniac, for example, might result in a slip and a nasty bruise or bone break.
Are these disclaimers just marketing gimmicks? Or can a waiver really insulate haunted houses from being sued?
For the most part, an attendee entering a place designed to scare and startle is doing so at their own peril, according to David Hoffman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “It’s a little like going to a baseball game,” Hoffman tells Mental Floss. “You’re assuming the risk of getting hit by the ball.”
That hasn’t stopped people from trying to pursue legal remedies for suffering injuries on haunted premises. In 1996, the family of a 10-year-old girl sued a haunted attraction in Louisiana because the youngster ran into a wall covered in black plastic sheeting after being spooked by an employee. The appeals court, however, found that such circumstances were understood to be part of a place decorated for the purpose of frightening guests. In 2011, a man in San Diego filed a lawsuit after walking out of a haunted house and being surprised by an employee revving a chainsaw. Terrified, he ran, fell, and injured both of his wrists. Once again, the court found in favor of the business. He was there to be scared: Mission accomplished.
Hoffman cautions that while these episodes are common, the nature of a haunted outlet doesn’t give operators the right to ignore a needlessly reckless hazard. A guest should reasonably expect creatures and dark surroundings, but not, for example, a giant hole in the floor, or an employee who acts so aggressively that you’re injured. “You run the risk of running into a wall, but not necessarily the risk of being tackled or assaulted,” he says.
To that end, a woman in Pontiac, Michigan sued Erebus Haunt Attraction in 2014 after a moving wall knocked her down, leading to leg fractures and other injuries. The two parties settled in 2015 for $125,000.
Erebus printed a disclaimer on admission tickets, but that may not offer much protection. For one thing, Hoffman says, haunted locales would have to prove the disclaimer was read by guests and that they had the option to get a refund if they refused to agree to terms.
The bottom line? No one is forced to visit a Halloween scare maze. If you do, you’re not all that likely to find a sympathetic court if you should happen to be injured while running away from one of its creepy denizens in the process. The real waiver is in willingly giving over money to be scared. Barring a grossly negligent hazard, you’re assuming all the risk.
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