By Minh Vu and Lotus Cannon

Seyfarth Synopsis:   New Eleventh Circuit decision says amusement park operators must base rider eligibility requirements on actual risks and cannot simply adopt manufacturer recommendations, even when required by state law.

How many natural limbs must a person possess to ride a roller coaster or other thrill-ride at an amusement park?  Until now, many parks simply adopted manufacturer recommendations, as required by state law.  A recent Eleventh Circuit decision upends this practice, demanding manufacturers and/or amusement parks conduct safety assessments that are tailored to specific rider eligibility requirements.

In Campbell v. Universal City Development Partners, Ltd. the plaintiff sued a waterpark under Title III of the ADA (“ADA”) after the park would not let him ride an aqua coaster because he did not meet the rider eligibility requirement of two natural, grasping hands.  (The plaintiff does not have a right hand and does not use a prosthetic.)  The plaintiff alleged that the park’s requirement violated the ADA which prohibits the imposition of discriminatory eligibility criteria unless those criteria are “necessary.”  The District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted the park summary judgment, finding that the criteria were “necessary” under the ADA because they were created by the ride’s manufacturer and Florida law requires compliance with manufacturer requirements.   The district court reached this conclusion even though the manufacturer had not identified any specific risks for riders with missing limbs. 

The district court holding did not sit well with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff. The Eleventh Circuit also did not agree with the district court, vacating judgment for the park and remanding the case for further proceedings. 

In reaching its decision, the Eleventh Circuit first held that the park bore the burden of proof to show that the limb requirement was “necessary.”  Second, the Court held that following state law mandating compliance with manufacturer requirements did not make the requirement “necessary” because state law cannot trump federal law (in this case, the ADA) when the two conflict. Third, the Court rejected the argument that compliance with manufacturer requirements is “necessary” because manufacturers have a comparative advantage in identifying safety risks.  The Court noted that the manufacturer had not actually identified any “actual risk” for people who are missing limbs.  The only safety risk that the manufacturer had identified relating to riders with disabilities concerned the impact of prosthetic limbs falling from the ride and striking someone, and as well as risks for riders with sight disabilities.  The Court said: “[W]e hold that a manufacturer-imposed safety requirement is ‘necessary’ only to the extent it is related to actual risks to the health and safety of guests.”  Finally, the Court stated that the need for administrative efficiency did not make the criteria “necessary” because the criteria themselves were not based on actual risk.

While this decision requires amusement parks to do more than just rely on manufacturer eligibility requirements, it does not prevent them from imposing legitimate eligibility requirements on riders based on actual risks.  The problem in this case was that no relevant risk assessment had been conducted by the public accommodation or manufacturer to justify the limb requirement.  

The decision also contains some useful nuggets.  For example, the Court recognized that “necessary” eligibility criteria include those that protect the health safety of the person with a disability, not just the health and safety of other riders.  This is a win for public accommodations because the current regulations only allow for the exclusion of individuals with disabilities when their participation poses a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others.   Further, the Court concluded that the term “necessary” includes more than what is required for safety and could include administrative feasibility.  On this issue, the park argued that it needed to rely on manufacturer requirements because it could not make individualized assessments for every rider.  The Court said it did not need to address this issue because the manufacturer requirement itself was lacking (i.e., not based on an assessment of “actual risk”) so the case did not present the question of whether a legitimate rider requirement could be applied to all similarly situated riders.

In sum, amusement parks should be reviewing rider eligibility requirements that impact people with disabilities to see if they are based on an assessment of actual risks.  If not, they should revise those rider requirements or conduct/commission additional risk assessments.

Edited by Kristina Launey