Matthew P. Woods was sitting in his Towson law office in March 2007 when a scary story came across his desk.
Woods’ client, Wanda E. Boyd, loved Halloween — loved it so much that she decked out her yard in tombstones, cobwebs, fake goblins, spiders and jack-o-lanterns, all set to a soundtrack of eerie music.
“She had one of those houses that was a destination house for trick-or-treating throughout the neighborhood,” said Woods, of H. Barritt Peterson Jr. & Associates.
Boyd was essentially inviting Halloween guests onto her property, which Robin A. Pruett’s lawyer pointed out in the suit Pruett filed after tripping on a loose lawn border in Boyd’s yard while trick-or-treating with her husband and two kids.
Pruett required three surgeries for elbow injuries suffered in the fall and Boyd, who spent that Halloween night in a witch costume on her front porch, found herself the subject of a $500,000 negligence lawsuit.
Bel Air solo practitioner Dennis O’Brien, a spokesman for the Maryland Association for Justice, said such suits are relatively rare, at least in Maryland. With the state’s strict contributory negligence standard for premises liability, plaintiffs have to prove that they had no personal responsibility for their injuries.
Maryland law breaks visitors into three categories — business invitees, social guests and trespassers — and provides different rights to each category. Landowners owe trespassers virtually no standard of care, but those who deck out their yards like Boyd on Halloween may take on more liability risk.
“If you participate in Halloween, you are allowing what the law recognizes as social invitees,” said Steven D. Silverman of Silverman Thompson Slutkin & White. “Which means you have a duty to warn them of known defects, but you have no duty to inspect or repair them.”
Silverman said that could mean putting up a sign to warn of a broken brick on a step — but the sign would have to be well lit and even then it might not be liability-proof.
“The other issue is, you have young kids trick-or-treating… and you can’t expect a 5-year-old child to understand that [sign],” he said. “So you truly would need to rope or block off any inherently dangerous area.”
Silverman also said homeowners might want to keep their dogs in a separate room when they open their doors for trick-or-treaters, noting the prevalence of dog-bite lawsuits.
But even for social guests, O’Brien said, the standard for proving a landowner was negligent is high. He said liability risks are much greater on Halloween for drivers who have to be on the lookout for small, often darkly-dressed trick-or-treaters.
“The Maryland Association for Justice, consistent with its mission of ‘keeping families safe,’ would remind and urge all Marylanders to drive carefully and to be vigilant for trick-or-treaters during Halloween,” he said in an emailed statement.
Be afraid — but not really
Businesses have a responsibility to ensure their premises are free of defects and safe for the public — and when your business is scaring people, that can be tricky.
Allan and Jill Bennett are the owners and operators of two high-tech haunted houses in the Baltimore area — Bennett’s Curse in Jessup and CreepyWoods Haunted Trail in Kingsville.
Their business is built around making people feel like they’re in danger, without actually putting them in danger.
“We do everything we possibly can; we work with the county to make it as safe as possible because as a business owner our neck is on the line,” Jill Bennett said. “You want them to be afraid, but I think they know they’re not truly in danger.”
Bennett said she and her husband contract with a “special events” insurance company for the 23 nights a year that their haunted attractions are open. Bennett’s Curse has been operating for 11 years, has between 60 and 70 paid employees and brings in 25,000 to 30,000 visitors a year, she said. CreepyWoods has been open for four years, employs between 30 and 40 people and draws in 15,000 to 20,000 customers.
Bennett said she and her husband have almost entirely stopped using volunteers, in part because paid employees are easier to insure, but insurance is still costly. To further limit the risk of liability, the paid actors who populate the haunted attractions as vampire knights and post-apocalyptic zombies are instructed not to touch the customers.
She says the haunted houses have a police officer on site, so actors can report misconduct rather than try to defend themselves if customers lash out.
“They won’t touch you as long as you don’t touch them,” Bennett says the customers are instructed.
Bennett said customers are also told before they enter the attractions that there will be strobe lights (to warn those who suffer seizures), tight spaces (to warn claustrophobics) and fog (to warn asthma sufferers).
Through the years, she said, she and her husband have been party to only one lawsuit — a slip-and-fall that was filed in 2007 and settled out of court by their insurance company.
Meanwhile, they’ve been able to maintain some of the region’s top haunted attractions, complete with animatronics, 3D video and live actors hiding in rooms full of props, ready to spring scary surprises. Bennett’s Curse has been featured on the Travel Channel as one of “America’s Scariest Halloween Attractions.”
Bennett said the challenges of liability are nothing compared to the challenges of keeping haunted house-seekers from heading to Pennsylvania.
“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for 11 years and the hardest part for us is getting people to stay in Maryland and realize there are good haunted attractions here.”
Woods’ client, Boyd, had her own little haunted attraction at her Halethorpe home. But Pruett’s lawsuit ruined it for her, even after the jury came back with a verdict in Boyd’s favor after less than two minutes of deliberation.
Boyd could not be reached for comment, and Woods said he had not talked to her in several years; but the last he heard, she was no longer decorating her house for Halloween.
For Woods, the memories of that suit, while not exactly haunting, have been tough to shake.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had another case come across my desk quite like that one,” he said.