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All Tricks, No Treats: When Halloween Pranks & Stunts Result in Litigation

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Halloween is one of the most exciting holidays of the year. People of all ages dress up in festive garb and hit the streets for candy, pranks, parties, and merriment. The phrase “Trick or Treat” finds its origins in the 16th century, when British and Irish children would recite verses in exchange for food or coin – or a little mischief, if the former was unavailable. In America, trick-or-treating has been a Halloween tradition since the early 1920s. However, some take the “trick” aspect of the holiday a little too seriously.

Halloween Pranks Gone Wrong

Most people enjoy a harmless prank, but Halloween tends to inspire some questionable tricks. For example, a Boston high school was sued in 2011 after a fun-loving teacher played a prank on a student. The teacher asked the 15-year-old to answer a knock at the classroom door, where a man wearing a mask and wielding a running chainsaw was lying in wait. The student tripped trying to escape and fractured his kneecap.

In 2009, a woman in Riverview, Florida filed a lawsuit after her neighbor erected homemade asylum tombstones on her lawn with offensive comments about the plaintiff, including, “At 48 she had no mate no date. It’s no debate she looked 88. She met her fate in a crate. Now we celebrate. 1961-2009.”

The Question of Negligence

There is, of course, a line when it comes to Halloween-based litigation. If a plaintiff pays to be scared and is sufficiently warned about potential hazards prior to entering a certain space, then the court can’t hold the property owner or business owner liable for any injuries that result from fear-based reactions. For example, in Durmond v. Billings, 973 So. 2d 872, a plaintiff sued the owners of a corn maze after she was frightened by a costumed Jason (Friday the 13th) actor. While running away, she fell and broke her leg. The court concluded that she had paid to be frightened and was warned that actors would give chase in the maze: “[W]e find that no duty was owed by the Billingses to Mrs. Durmond in this case  to warn or protect her from her reaction to being frightened by ‘Jason,’ an experience she expected to have and for which she paid an additional admission fee.”  

Many Halloween events are constructed and operated for the sole purpose of frightening patrons. For this reason, the normal “duty of care” policy may not apply. That said, it did apply in Dickinson v. Hustonville Haunted House and Greg Walker. In this case, a plaintiff broke four vertebrae in her back after falling out of a second-story window at a haunted house. One of the actors in the attraction came up behind the group and started screaming, which caused everyone to jump in fright. The plaintiff just so happened to jump back and out of an open window that was covered by a sheet – a perfect example of “negligence” by a business owner.

As you can see, there is a difference between the plaintiff who fell out of a window and the person who tripped and broke their leg in a corn maze: negligence. But this policy only applies to business owners of horror attractions. The average person playing tricks in the night does owe a duty of care to targeted friends, neighbors, and passersby. Why? Because that person isn’t expecting a trick, nor are they a willing participant.

In a tragic – and criminal – case, a woman in New York was charged with misdemeanor assault after a Halloween prank killed her friend and injured several others. After being inspired by a prank she saw on TV, the woman decided to spike party punch with Visine eye drops. According to the TV show, the Visine would only make people woozy and ill, which is honestly criminal enough. But Visine causes serious medical issues, including respiratory failure. The friend collapsed after drinking the Visine and later passed away. Several others at the party became seriously ill and needed to be hospitalized.

How Can Business Owners Avoid Personal Injury Lawsuits?

As previously stated, business owners tend to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to horror attractions. But that’s only if patrons are aware of the risks. Business owners need to provide a reasonably safe environment to patrons and provide them with sufficient warnings regarding the attraction or event. They also need to establish clear expectations when it comes to employee appropriateness.

How can Homeowners & Well-Meaning Pranksters Avoid Personal Injury Lawsuits?

Homeowners and pranksters can be held liable for injuries resulting from poorly maintained homesteads and dangerous tricks. To prevent injuries, homeowners are advised to clear walkways for trick-or-treaters and remove any hazards, including decorations, that could potentially hurt children and adults.

Pranksters, on the other hand, need to avoid tricks that could lead to 911 calls, emergency room visits, and claims involving injuries, defamation, harassment, and/or emotional distress. For example:

  • Don’t act out a prank that could be physically or emotionally harmful to another person.
  • Never target someone who could be offended by the details of the prank.
  • Don’t erect signs or use props that could insult or offend a specific person or minority group.
  • Never run up to people and threaten violence or sexual assault, even as a costumed character.
  • Don’t make the target consume something dangerous, even as a joke (don’t forget about allergies).
  • Avoid using nooses and other strangulation devices in a prank, as there have been countless fatalities and injuries reported in the past.  
  • Do not use dangerous objects or props in a prank (swords, axes, chainsaws, animals, etc.)
  • Never place someone – friend or otherwise – in a dangerous situation as part of a prank.
  • Don’t play a prank that could harm someone’s career.

So, what defines a safe prank and a bad prank? A “good” prank is not patently mean or hurtful, and never results in physical or emotional injuries. A bad prank is devised for the purpose of harming, insulting, or embarrassing another party. A joke that plays on someone’s greatest fears is not going to be funny to them. In other words, it’s a good prank if everyone is laughing at the end, and not just the perpetrator. When it comes to pranking, stay in good taste and have a happy Halloween!

Injured by a Halloween Prank? Call Daspit Law Firm Today

Contact the personal injury attorneys at Daspit Law Firm if you require legal assistance after suffering the consequences of a Halloween prank gone wrong. Our client-driven litigators can investigate the incident and develop a comprehensive litigation strategy that aims to maximize your claim.

Pursue justice and restitution with Daspit Law Firm. Contact our personal injury lawyers at (888) 273-1045 to arrange a free and confidential case evaluation.

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