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California Law—Negligence and Fireworks Explosion Incidents

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

It occurred when multiple fireworks canisters exploded close to the ground. This resulted in debris to be shot 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 there was 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

Under California law, just as in many other states negligence is established when there is injury or damage caused due to lack of “ordinary care.” In California and other jurisdictions when this involves dangerous activities there is a higher standard required, to use “extreme caution.” When the dangerous activities involve fireworks, then it can be questioned who may be held liable besides the pyrotechnic professional’s company.

An example that is in some ways similar it’s the owner of a shooting gallery, who is held to a higher standard of care. In the case of 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, because of the ammunition and explosive materials. The business had the higher standard of care to inspect and test ammunition used in close range shooting, to ensure they were safe before distributing bullets to patrons.


Duty of Care Must Consider the Potential Danger

The California Supreme Court ruled that the duty of care must be proportionate to the risk that may be reasonably anticipated to avoid consequences that could occur. This is then open to reason that the person or entity responsible for the setting up and ignition of 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 fireworks display, where the pyrotechnics resulted in a premature explosion causing injuries to spectators, including burns. There were claims brought against the pyrotechnics professionals, the manufacturer and the sponsors of the event. This case also included the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and a Japanese trade organization and was a non-jury trial. The defendants were found liable.

The sponsors of the fireworks display appealed, arguing that their standard of duty was to hire pyrotechnic professionals and were not liable for the negligent actions of these experts. They also argued they could not be held liable for faulty manufacturing or the setting off of the fireworks. The verdict was upheld by the California Supreme Court, who denied the appeal against the sponsors and pyrotechnic professionals. In making the ruling, the court depended upon the Restatement Second of Torts Section 423.

The details were holding employers of parties who engage in dangerous activities to be liable in the same manner they would be with any other contractor the company hires. This part of the ruling can be seen on page 525 of Ramsey. One of the other elements of this case, while the plaintiff brought a lawsuit for negligence, it also included strict liability. The reason for this theory being used was to hold the manufacturer and the individual chain of distribution entities liable for defective products or materials, which in this case were the 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. Legally this is referred to as “comparative negligence and apportionment of fault.” When the individual does not take this responsibility seriously and brings a lawsuit, they may be ruled against, even if they have sustained injuries.

This can be seen in the legal action of Matthews v. City of Albany 36, Cal.App.2d 147, where the plaintiff who suffered harm by an unexploded firework from an event that took place and made the decision to explode it by himself. The court ruled against the plaintiff. This is because the show sponsor or pyrotechnics professional could not be held liable for the incident.


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, the civil liability applies. The recent incident like all legal issues will depend on facts. Often these facts are not clear until the investigation has been completed. This will provide answers about if there was a malfunction.

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 off there is 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 of proximity to where the pyrotechnic professionals were setting these materials off. For example, were the spectators behind an area that had been marked off? This would speak volumes whether the victims contributed to their misfortune. What was the hiring process by the sponsor for this event of the pyrotechnic company?

The spectators that were harmed may decide to bring civil personal injury claims against the liable entities. But this will depend on a thorough and timely investigation taking place. This study will determine what happened. And it should also provide the information necessary to prevent this type of incident from occurring during any other fireworks display.

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