What did 26 year old Samantha Fernandez expect when she entered the bouncy house at her four year old niece’s birthday party? As a recent case illustrates, an injury resulting from an instinctive act of concern raised a plethora of legal issues.
Samantha Fernandez injured her left foot while inside an inflatable rubber bounce house at the Laser Bounce of Li, Inc. children’s entertainment center in Levittown, New York. Fernandez sued Laser Bounce on various theories of liability, including violations of the New York State Labor Law as well as provisions set forth in bulletins issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In response to Laser Bounce’s motion for summary judgment, Fernandez retreated to the exclusive theory of liability in this matter that the negligent failure to provide adequate supervision of the bounce house which Laser Bounce owned, operated, maintained, and which it had a responsibility to supervise. Laser Bounce moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.
Fernandez’ testified that, on the date of this accident, she went to the entertainment center to attend her niece’s birthday party. The party consisted of approximately 15 family members, including roughly 5 adults and 10 children. About an hour after she arrived, the group went to the children’s bouncy house. Their group was the only group in the bouncy house section at that time. To enter that area, the group passed through a gate that was attended by a teenage employee. Fernandez did not recall seeing any rules posted on the gate and did not remember if the employee gave them any instructions before entering. Aside from the employee stationed at the gate, Fernandez testified that she did not see any other employee in that area for the entire 15-20 minutes she was there prior to her accident– but made no complaints make about the lack of adequate supervision.
There were several bounce houses in the play area. One of the bounce houses contained an obstacle course that was 6- to 10-feet wide by at least 20-feet long. The inside had holes to crawl through, rubber pillars to maneuver around, and a hill to climb over. The roof was open, the sides were covered with mesh, and the floor was made of inflatable rubber. At a certain point, Fernandez observed her niece follow two older “rambunctious” cousins into the obstacle course bounce house. Fernandez soon became concerned for her niece’s safety and decided to go in after her as no one was around supervising. Although not panicked, she wanted to make sure her niece “wasn’t in harms’ way.” Before entering the bounce house, Fernandez did not hear any screaming or crying, nor look for her niece through the house’s mesh sides. She also did not attempt to seek the assistance of an employee to help her locate her niece. Fernandez testified that she was not aware of any posted signs stating that management should be notified of any problems or concerns–but that, even if she had been aware, she would not have notified anyone because she did not assume her niece was hurt.
Once inside the bounce house, Fernandez maneuvered around the obstacles, and also tried to maintain her balance on the inflatable floor. The accident happened while she was descending a hill before the exit. As she stepped off the rubber step attached to the hill, her left foot folded causing her to fall and sustain an injury. Fernandez testified that the bounce house was fully inflated, the lighting was sufficient, and that there was no debris, wetness, or other conditions that caused her foot to fold. She attributed her injury solely to the way she planted her foot on the floor, combined with the fact that the inflatable floor by its very nature was not steady. Fernandez had been aware of the instability of bounce house floors and the need to maintain balance, having been inside bounce houses when she was younger.
In support of its motion, Laser Bounce made a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by demonstrating that, under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk, Fernandez assumed the risks inherent in a bounce house, including the risk of sustaining injury in the manner in which she did in this case. The doctrine applies when a consenting participant in a qualified activity is aware of the risks; has an appreciation of the nature of the risks; and voluntarily assumes the risks. If the risks of the activity are fully comprehended or perfectly obvious, the plaintiff had consented to them and defendant had performed its duty.
Fernandez’ testimony made it clear that she was aware of the risks of walking through a bouncy house, having been in similar houses when she was younger; had an appreciation of those risks; and voluntarily assumed the risks inherent in the activity she was undertaking. Thus, Laser Bounce was relieved of its legal duty and could not be charged with negligence.
In opposition, Fernandez failed to raise a triable issue of fact. There was no merit to her argument that primary assumption of risk did not apply. Once Fernandez voluntarily chose to enter the bounce house, she implicitly consented to the risks inherent in the activity, which included the prospect of an injury. Her testimony did not support her contention that she was compelled to enter the bounce house out of concern for her niece’s safety due to a lack of adequate supervision. She entered the bounce house without any belief that her niece was hurt or in any distress. There was no screaming, crying or any other indicators of trouble. Fernandez could have looked for her niece through the house’s mesh siding but made no attempt to do so. She also had the option to seek assistance from the employee stationed at the entry gate, if she deemed it necessary. Fernandez was not faced with an emergency and her decision to enter the house was purely volitional.
And, even if the doctrine of assumption of risk was inapplicable, Laser Bounce still met its prima facie burden of demonstrating that Fernandez’ injuries were not proximately caused by the alleged inadequate supervision. To sustain the burden of proving a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must generally show that the defendant’s negligence was a substantial cause of the events which produced the injury. In general, the issue of proximate cause is for the jury. But liability may not be imposed upon a party who merely furnishes the condition or occasion for the occurrence of the event but was not one of its causes. Here, even if Laser Bounce was negligent in failing to adequately supervise the bouncy house area, such negligence only furnished the occasion for the accident but was not a proximate cause.
Finally, the “danger invites rescue” doctrine did not apply. The testimony established that Fernandez’ niece was not facing an imminent, life threatening peril.
Laser Bounce’s motion was granted and Fernandez’ complaint was dismissed in its entirety.