It’s nearly Halloween, and you know what that means: trick-or-treaters in the streets, candy on the grocery store shelves, and haunted houses around every corner. But haunted houses these days are more than cardboard skeletons and creaky jump scares. Places like Blackout and Freakling Bros. offer extreme, graphic, immersive experiences complete with waivers and “safe words,” and even more run-of-the-mill attractions incorporate chainsaws, moving floors, and other potential hazards. America Haunts, an association of haunted house owners and operators, estimates that there are more than 1,200 haunted attractions in the U.S., drawing 8,000 guests or more per attraction. America Haunts assures guests that haunted attractions are extremely safe because all such attractions must comply with fire and safety codes that require sprinklers, emergency exits, and other measures. However, the fact remains that haunted houses are designed to simulate dangerous situations and may induce panic; in fact, some visitors have suffered heart attacks while going through a haunted house. This raises the question: can a haunted house be liable for a guest’s injury?
The answer may be: that depends. In a California case, a man sued a haunted attraction for an injury he suffered when he ran from an actor wielding a chainsaw. The court found that the attraction was not liable for the injury because fear and flight were inherent risks in such an attraction. In other words, the patron went there to be scared, and he was scared. A Louisiana court heard a similar case, with a similar result, holding that, “Patrons in a Halloween haunted house are expected to be surprised, startled and scared.” Visitors to haunted houses assume some risk due to the nature of the attraction, even if they don’t sign formal waivers.
However, the possibility remains that, if a haunted house fails to adhere to basic safety codes ‒ that is, if it does not maintain appropriate lighting and exits ‒ it could be held liable for its patrons’ injuries. Further, if the haunted attraction fails to warn patrons about certain risks that they might encounter (fog, strobe lights, uneven surfaces, etc.), then it could be sued for any harm suffered as a result. The key then is to ensure that visitors to haunted houses know what to expect without spoiling any surprises.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.