Jan 30, 2019

California Law—Negligence and Fireworks Explosion Incidents


A young legal assistant
Ehline Law Firm Legal Assistant

The Fourth of July means cookouts, high foods coming off of the grill, picnics, and watching fireworks with the family. This is usually a fun and exciting time; this year, the fireworks display in Simi Valley, California, was startling. The events took place approximately five minutes into the twenty-five-minute show near the Los Angeles border.

It occurred when multiple fireworks canisters exploded close to the ground. This explosion resulted in debris shooting out at nearby spectators, causing the crowd to scatter and spectators to be burned and injured.


Simi Valley Shout Out

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this year’s Simi Valley fireworks mishap. Last Independence Day, a similar incident with a pyrotechnics display in the San Diego, California, area. These two Fourth of July mishaps are enough to warrant exploring the legal issues involved in these types of situations.

In incidences where fireworks malfunctions have legal issues, and these typically will constitute negligence, which can vary between the parties involved in the display of fireworks that include the pyrotechnic professional(s), the manufacturer, and the party or entity that is responsible for setting up the fireworks display event.

In incidences where fireworks malfunctions have legal issues, and these typically will constitute negligence, which can vary between the parties involved in the display of fireworks that include the pyrotechnic professional(s), the manufacturer, and the party or entity that is responsible for setting up the fireworks display event.


Ordinary Care and "Extreme Caution" Distinguished

For a personal injury plaintiff to prove negligence, they must prove their injury or damage was caused by a lack of “ordinary care.” In California and other jurisdictions, dangerous activities require an even higher standard or "duty of care."  “Extreme caution” remains the standard as of 2020. So when hazardous activities involve fireworks, many parties could be liable. For example, people besides the pyrotechnic professional's company may be accountable.

In some ways, this duty remains similar to the duties owed by a shooting gallery. It stands to reason that shooting galleries remain held to a higher standard of care. In Warner v. Santa Catalina Island Company, 44 Cal.2d 310, 317, a patron was injured when bullets malfunctioned. The court determined the business should be held to this higher standard.

This was because of the use of inherently dangerous ammunition and explosive materials. The industry had a higher standard of care to inspect and test ammunition used in the close-range shooting. They had to ensure the ammo was safe before distributing bullets to patrons. It makes sense, right?


EXTREME CARE - The Duty of Care Must Consider the Potential Danger

The California Supreme Court ruled that the burden of care must be proportionate to the risk. The duty of care includes anticipating potential future consequences. This reasonableness is then open to the reason that the person or entity setting up and igniting fireworks would be held to this higher standard of “extreme care.” One case that mainly addresses this issue is Ramsey v. Marutamaya Ogatsu Fireworks Company, 72 Cal.App.3d 516.

This case involves a fireworks display, where the pyrotechnics resulted in a premature explosion causing injuries to spectators, including burns. Personal injury lawyers brought claims against the pyrotechnics professionals, the manufacturer, and the event's sponsors. This case also included the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and a Japanese trade organization. This personal injury lawsuit was a non-jury trial. The defendants were found liable.

The Appeal

The fireworks display sponsors appealed, arguing that their standard of duty was to hire pyrotechnic professionals and were not liable for these experts' negligent actions. Appellant claimed no responsibility for faulty manufacturing or setting off of the fireworks.

The California Supreme Court upheld the verdict. In other words, the Court denied the appeal against the sponsors and pyrotechnic professionals. In making the ruling, the court depended upon the Restatement Second of Torts Section 423.

Most of all, employers of parties who engage in dangerous activities are liable in the same manner they would be with any other contractor the company hires. (See also page 525 of Ramsey.)

One of the other elements of this case, while the plaintiff brought a lawsuit for negligence, also included strict liability. The reason for the use of this theory was to hold the manufacturer and chain of distribution entities liable for defective products or materials. And in this case, they were explosive fireworks.


Plaintiff's Duty Of Care Matters

The other side of this is the plaintiff bringing an action does have a legal responsibility to a certain degree, which is to act responsibly when attending a fireworks display. “Comparative negligence and apportionment of fault” is the formula to determine fault. Most of all, plaintiffs can lose even if they have injuries.

Instructive here is the case of Matthews v. City of Albany 36, Cal.App.2d 147. Basically, in that case, the plaintiff suffered harm from an unexploded firework at an outdoor event. And the plaintiff decided to explode it by himself. The court ruled against the plaintiff. Of particular interest here, this ruling found the show sponsor or pyrotechnics professional was not liable.


Heightened Standard Of Care?

Due to the higher duty of attention, the incident of malfunctioning fireworks in Simi Valley this Independence Day, and other incidences of this nature, civil liability applies. The recent episode, like all legal issues, will depend on facts. Often these remain hidden facts until the completion of the investigation. This evidence will provide answers about malfunctions and types of severe injuries sufferred.

For example, what if the fireworks had a faulty ignition or were defective in any manner? The law is that if there was negligence in the duty of care or caution used in setting the display, there is a legal liability.

  • Example of Plaintiff's Burden versus Burden of Defendant

Another answer that will be necessary is whether the spectators were in too close proximity to where the pyrotechnic professionals were setting these materials off. For example, were the spectators behind a marked-off area? This evidence would speak volumes as to whether or not victims remained unreasonably close to the explosion.

Also, what was the hiring process by the sponsor for this event? What screening standards were used to hire the pyrotechnic company? Now the harmed spectators could bring civil personal injury claims against the liable entities with evidence of even gross neglect or recklessness. But usually, only a great lawyer can discover this information. Most of all, this will depend on a thorough and timely investigation. This study will determine what happened and how. And it should also provide the information necessary to prevent this type of incident at another fireworks display.

Did you suffer severe and extreme personal injuries from fireworks and need a listening ear? Our serious injury lawyers at Ehline Law Firm Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC, are here to hear your story. Severe injury victims seeking maximum compensation for the at-fault-defendant can now call (213) 596-9642. Or you can use your below online contact form to speak with a charismatic, superior local accident lawyer.

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