October 31, 2013
Lawsuit

Updated 9/19/2016

With spooky costumes, haunted houses, festive parties and trick-or-treating, Halloween events can often pave the way for lawsuits.

Haunted Attractions & Injury Liability

Haunted houses and other haunted attractions often feature menacing characters, dimly lit passages or surprise encounters that can lead to snap reactions and injury. Even though these attractions often require a signed waiver, they are not immune to lawsuits. A business must take extreme amounts of precaution to ensure the safety of their customers. Even though it may seem like common-sense the business can still be held liable for injuries and death.

Previous Halloween Lawsuits

Deborah Mays & a Cinderblock Wall

In 1996, Deborah Mays attended a haunted house operated by the Gretna Athletic Boosters, Inc. When a haunted house employee jumped out to scare her, Deborah became frightened and fled, running into a cinder-block wall that had been covered in black fabric. Deborah broke her nose due to this incident, and the injury required two surgeries to repair. However, the court ruled that the Gretna Athletic Boosters had “no duty to protect Mays from her reacting in bizarre, frightened and unpredictable ways.”

A Girl and a Corn Maze

In a similar case involving a corn maze, the plaintiff sued for negligence when she broke her leg after being frightened by a character dressed as Friday the 13th’s Jason and wielding a chainsaw. Although the plaintiff claimed the owners were negligent because the field was too muddy, the court concluded that she had paid to be frightened and was aware of the conditions upon entering the maze.

Flammable Costumes

While DIY costumes are known for their affordability and creativity one must be aware of the safety liabilities that can come with these creative costumes. Take for instance Susan and Frank Ferlito. They attended a Halloween Party dressed as Little Bo Peep and one of her sheep. Frank had constructed his sheep costume out of Johnson and Johnson cotton balls. While having a smoke, Frank’s lit cigarette ignited his costume causing him to sue Johnson and Johnson. The Ferlitos were award $625,000 but the jury also found them to be 50% at fault.

Party Precautions

When hosting a large Halloween party at your business, it is better to be overly cautious regarding safety. In a case from 2010, the parents of Megan Duskey were awarded $500,000 in compensation for their daughter’s death after Megan fell four floors while attempting to slide down a railing at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. The suit claimed that the hotel failed to provide security to party goers and also allowed them unlimited amounts of alcohol.

Halloween & Business Owners: How to Avoid Potential Halloween Lawsuits

Even though businesses running haunted houses or mazes seem to get the benefit of the doubt because clientele should be aware of the risks, all business owners should be aware of their increased liability around the holiday.

Businesses allowing costume days for employees should be clear about expectations for the appropriateness, to avoid complications with sexual harassment suits.

Take for instance Devane v. Sears Home Improvement Products Inc. A female sales employee was awarded $50,000 after filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against her manager for making a lewd action and comment to her regarding the costume she was wearing.

Bar and restaurant owners may also see increased safety hazards and should be aware of the risks associated with exaggerated and sometimes flammable costume attire paired with rowdy behavior.

Halloween & Your Home: How to Avoid Potential Halloween Lawsuits

Homeowners also have increased responsibility on Halloween as well. Jeffrey Purtell’s choice of Halloween decorations led him to begin a lawsuit in 2007, in defense of his right to free speech. Purtell had past disputes with his neighbors, and decided to feature their names and insulting inscriptions on tombstones he placed in his yard. When the tensions turned into a physical scuffle, police officer Bruce Mason threatened to arrest Purtell for disorderly conduct if he did not remove the display. Purtell sued Mason for violating his First Amendment rights. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the tombstones are protected speech, but also concluded that it was “unfortunate that this petty neighborhood dispute found its way into federal court.”

Homeowners may also be found liable for injuries resulting from poorly maintained lawns and porches or Halloween pranks. It is advised that homeowners looking to host trick-or-treaters be sure walkways are clear and well lit and consider removal of potential hazards. Remember that Halloween decorations and a porch light often signify that trick-or-treaters are welcome to approach your home.

No matter how you plan to celebrate the holiday this year, don’t let a Halloween lawsuit cramp your spooky style.