Carnival Operator has no duty to protect Patrons

Carnival Operator Has No Duty to Protect Patrons from Hazardous Condition on Adjacent Public Highway

In the recent case of Christen v. Fiesta Shows, Inc., the New Hampshire Supreme Court reaffirmed the general principle that a property owner or tenant has no duty to protect its guests from hazardous conditions existing on adjacent public ways.  In this case, 15-year old Sophia Christen and her friends were attending a carnival in a Derry parking lot.  They crossed the busy highway adjacent to the carnival to use the restroom at a nearby restaurant.  The walk signal at the crossing was out of order, and unfortunately Sophia was struck by a passing car and killed.  Her estate sued the carnival operator, claiming that it knew or should have known about the hazardous situation, that it was foreseeable that its patrons would cross the highway as Sophia and her friends did, and that the company owed (or had voluntarily assumed) a duty of care to them, and should have taken steps to minimize the danger. (A separate suit against the State with respect to the inoperative walk signal was apparently settled; the reported case doesn’t indicate the outcome of any suit against the motorist involved, or any other parties.)

The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision dismissing the case.  In doing so the Court relied on precedents establishing the principal that a property owner is generally not responsible for dangerous conditions existing on adjacent public ways, and owes no duty of care to its own patrons and guests to warn them of or to remove or mitigate the hazard.  Limited exceptions to this rule do exist: for example, where the property is divided by a public way and it is foreseeable that guests will be crossing the road to access various parts of the premises.  This is particularly the case where a “special relationship” exists, as between an innkeeper and guest (such as a hotel complex with lodging facilities on one side of the road and parking, dining, conference or recreational facilities on the other.).  Such was not the case here, however.  Nor, the Court found, had Fiesta Shows voluntarily assumed a duty of care by hiring Derry police officers to provide “general public safety” (but not traffic control) at the carnival. Finally, the company’s alleged failure to apply for a municipal “public gathering license” did not create liability to carnival patrons in a case such as this, where no such liability otherwise arose.  While the facts of this case are particularly poignant, the Court’s decision represents a welcome reaffirmation of traditional tort principles insofar as property owners are concerned.

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