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Case Law Update: Roller Coaster Injury and Res Ipsa Loquitur

Posted Thursday, April 4, 2019 by Christopher L. Thayer

In Brugh v. Fun-Tastic Rides Co., (51055-3, March 26, 2019) the Washington Court of Appeals (Division II) recently addressed application of the Res Ipsa Loquitur (latin for “the thing speaks for itself) doctrine in the context of an injury suffered on a roller coaster ride.

Fun-Tastic operated a roller coaster at the Washington State Fair. Brugh rode the roller coaster and described the last turn on the ride as a “sudden and violent jolt”. As a result of this jolt, she struck both sides of her head on the roller coaster’s safety harness. She lost hearing in one ear and went to the doctor, who noted bleeding from both ears. Over the next few weeks she developed severe head and neck pain and was ultimately diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury and a subdural hematoma.

Brugh subsequently sued Fun-Tastic for negligence seeking an award of damages for her injuries. The trial court, after reconsideration, granted Fun-Tastic’s request and dismissed Brugh’s lawsuit on summary judgment. Brugh appealed.

In an action for negligence, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) the existence of a duty, (2) breach of that duty, (3) resulting injury/damages, and (4) proximate cause.

The concept of Res Ipsa Loquitur “provides an inference as to defendant’s breach of duty”. Curtis v. Lein, 169 Wn. 2d 884 (2010). A plaintiff may rely on the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur to establish an inference of a breach of the applicable duty if three elements are satisfied: (1) the accident or occurrence which caused plaintiff injury would not ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence, (2) the instrumentality or agency which caused plaintiff’s injury was in defendant’s exclusive control, and (3) plaintiff did not contribute to the accident or occurrence. In the Brugh case, the parties only disputed the first element – whether the accident or occurrence would not ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence.

This element of the doctrine is satisfied in any of the three scenarios:

(1) When the act causing the injury is so palpably negligent that it may be inferred as a matter of law . . . ; (2) when the general experience and observation of mankind teaches that the result would not be expected without negligence; or (3) when proof by experts in an esoteric field creates and inference that negligence caused the injuries.

The Court of Appeals found Brugh’s injuries were not of a type to be generally expected while riding a roller coaster, reasoning:

We recognize that certain injuries are to be expected while riding roller coasters. For example, general experience teaches that people may receive minor bumps to their head from the safety harness of a roller coaster during a ride. General experience teaches that people may receive minor whiplash while riding a roller coaster. However, general experience teaches that a subdural hematoma brain bleed does not ordinarily happen while strapped in to a roller coaster in the absence of negligence.

Plaintiff apparently had no evidence of any specific defect or malfunction of the roller coaster. The court struggled with whether significant injury, in and of itself, could be sufficient to raise the inference of the Res Ipsa Loquitur doctrine. Ultimately, the court concluded it did and reverse the trial court sending the case back for further proceedings.

If you have a question about a potential personal injury claim, please contact managing member Chris Thayer at (206) 805-1494 or CThayer@PivotalLawGroup.com.