The California Supreme Court has agreed to review an appellate court ruling that would hold Disneyland to the same passenger safety requirements as operators of buses, trains, taxi cabs, escalators and ski lifts.
Industry officials worry that such an interpretation would drive up ticket prices and take the fun out of thrill rides.
At issue is whether an amusement park should be considered a "common carrier," a century-old legal term to describe a business that carries the public.
If so, the amusement park would be required to exercise "utmost care" in operating its rides, rather than the current standard of "reasonable care."
If the state Supreme Court upholds the appellate court ruling, amusement park officials said they could be forced to slow down attractions.
"No one will get on amusement rides, because they'll be boring. They'll all be kiddie merry-go-rounds," said industry attorney Wayne Pierce.
"If you now subject everything to being toned down, that could easily become the end of the amusement industry and the birth of a meditation industry."
The common-carrier question is being addressed as an offshoot of a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the Walt Disney Co.
In that case, a 23-year-old woman from Spain suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage after riding the Indiana Jones Adventure in 2000.
The lawsuit contends that Cristina Moreno immediately felt ill after getting off the ride, returned to her hotel and passed out. She never regained consciousness and died a few months later.
Beverly Hills attorney Barry Novack sued Disney on behalf of Moreno's family, alleging, in part, that the ride is a common carrier and that the company should have used more care when designing it. A state appellate court upheld Novack's position, and Disney appealed.
Although the case specifically involves Disney, industry associations and other companies such as Six Flags Inc. have filed briefs and letters with the court supporting Disney's position.
Novack said the industry's response is "knee-jerk," akin to automobile companies' resistance to padded dashboards, seat belts and air bags.
"I don't think safety is going to destroy the industry," Novack said. "It's not going to put them out of business. If these rides are as safe as they claim they are, then what fear do they have? It shouldn't require them to do any more than they're doing."
An amusement park ride is a common carrier, Novack said, because -- like passengers on a bus or train or ski lift -- park patrons' safety is largely beyond their control. Under the civil code's broad definition, a common carrier is "every one who offers to the public to carry persons, property or messages."
"When you're dealing with an environment where [the operators] control the force, the acceleration, the jerking, the dynamics of the ride, it's all in [the industry's] hands," Novack said.
The attorney has long argued that theme parks should have a responsibility to warn guests about possible risks, including brain hemorrhages and death, Novack said. Making them a common carrier is one way to require greater warning.
Industry attorney Pierce said the 130-year-old law does not apply to amusement parks. The intent of the law was to ensure safety in various forms of transit, particularly at a time when technologies such as railroads and canals were coming into use with spotty safety records.
Roller coasters and similar rides are entertainment, not transportation, he said.
"The carrying is incidental to the true purpose," Pierce said. "The true function is to provide thrills, excitement, entertainment. The fact that your body is moving is incidental."
In Disney's petition to the Supreme Court, its attorneys said the issue is of widespread interest and could affect every future court case involving ride injuries.
Industry officials said redefining amusement parks as common carriers could conflict with state regulations and could increase insurance costs, force the redesign of attractions, drive away customers and prevent ride manufacturers from doing business with California parks.
USC law professor Gregory Keating said that because the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, it would probably reverse rather than affirm the lower court ruling.
"If the court thinks of common carrier as a category, it's more likely to lean toward amusement parks as a form of entertainment, not an important public service," Keating said.
"But the analogy to ski lifts is quite close," he said. "The plaintiff or prospective victim entrusts himself into the care of a park or ski resort and can't do much to protect himself. If the court thinks in terms similar to ski lifts, then there's a stronger case for 'utmost care.' "