Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak English

An outfitter must follow industry norms when dealing with guests. If the rest of the industry gives guests a safety talk, then you better give guests a safety talk. The problem arises when your guest cannot understand what you are saying.

Grotheer v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., 14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two 

Plaintiff: Erika Grotheer 

Defendant: Escape Adventures, Inc., the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher, and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc.,

Plaintiff Claims: negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air  balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed its passengers a heightened duty of care 

Defendant Defenses: Plaintiff could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver.

Holding: For the Defendant 

Year: 2017 


Being labeled a common carrier means you owe a higher degree of care to your guests than normal. However, a hot-air balloon ride is not classified as a common carrier because the analysis used under California law, whether the operator has control over the activity, is not met in ballooning. A balloon pilot can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon, all else is left to Mother Nature.

Assumption of risk under California law eliminates a duty that might be owed by the outfitter or in this case the balloon operator. However, not giving a safety talk before the ride is not an inherent risk assumed by the plaintiff. Since the industry, the ballooning industry, gives safety talks, then there is a duty on a balloon operator to give a safety talk to its guests.

However, if no safety talk was given, that still does not mean the outfitter is liable if the injury the plaintiff received was not proximately caused by the failure to give a safety talk.


The plaintiff is German and does not speak English. Her son signed her up for a balloon flight in the California wine country. The ride crash landed, as most balloon flights do and the plaintiff suffered a broken leg.

The three defendants were the balloon company, the balloon pilot and the winery where the launch and crash occurred. 

The plaintiff sued alleging negligence and because the defendant was a common carrier, the defendant owed the plaintiff a higher duty of care. 

A common carrier in most states is a business operating moving people from one place to another for a fee. The transportation company owes a higher degree of care to its passengers because the passenger has no control over the way the transportation is provided or how the transportation is maintained. 

A good example of this is a commercial airline. You have no idea if the plane is maintained, and you cannot fly the plane. Consequently, your life is totally in the hands of a commercial airline.

The other component of a common carrier is usually the movement is from point A to point B and the main reason is the passenger needs to get from point A to point B. In California the movement is not as important as it is in the other states.  In California, the decided factor is the control factor. California’s definition of a common carrier is much broader and  encompasses many more types of transportation, including transportation for recreation or thrills, not necessarily for getting from one place to the next. 

However, in California the analysis is not who has control but who has what control. 

For additional articles about common carriers see Zip line accused of being a common carrier who makes releases unenforceable. Issue still not decided, however, in all states common carriers cannot use a release as a defense and California case examines the relationship between a common carrier and public policy when applied to a ski area chair lift

The plaintiff based her claim on failing to instruct her in the risks of ballooning and what to do if the balloon were to crash. The balloonists met at the winery and then drove to the launch site. All but the plaintiff rode with the balloon company where the defendants claim they gave a safety speech. The plaintiff rode with her son to the launch site and did not hear the speech. 

More importantly, the plaintiff did not speak or understand English so even if she would have heard the safety talk, whether or not she could have understood it would be a question. 

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims find the plaintiff could not prove the element of duty; One of the four requirements to prove negligence. The trial court also found the plaintiff had assumed the risk and as such the defendants did not owe her any duty of care. The plaintiff appealed. 

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts. 

The court started with the Common Carrier analysis.  

California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.

The court defined common carrier by statute as “A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” This higher degree of care only applies to carriers who hold themselves out to the public for hire.

A carrier of persons without reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill. 

The level of care is not absolute; common carriers are not insurers of the safety of their passengers. However, they are required to do all that “human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.” This heightened duty originated in England, prior to the US becoming a country and was based on: 

This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers. 

In California, the common carrier status started with stage coaches. Since then the application of the term and the heightened duty has evolved and broadened to include recreational transportation, “scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters “have all been deemed common carriers under California law.”

In California, the degree of care is defined more by the control the passenger has over the transportation. Roller Coasters are common carriers because the passenger has no control over the speed of the coaster or the maintenance on the coaster. At the same time, bumper cars are not common carriers because the passenger is able to steer and control the speed and direction of the bumper car. 

In California, the “inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury.”

The court found the hot-air balloon was not a common carrier. Although the passenger has little if any control over the flight of the balloon, neither does the pilot of the balloon. The only control the pilot has is changing the altitude of the balloon. 

…balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity.

The analysis the court applied then turned on how much control the operator of the transportation had, not how little the passenger had. 

But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon. 

Thus a balloon pilot does not owe his or her customer a heightened duty of care. 

Assumption of the risk was the next defense the court examined. Under California law if the plaintiff assumes the risk, then the defendant does not owe the plaintiff any duty of care. 

Under California law, a balloon operator does not owe his or her passengers a duty of care for the inherent risks of the activity. “The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.”

Because the pilot of a hot-air balloon can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon and no other control of the balloon, the passenger must assume the risk of all things ballooning. 

We therefore hold the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent. 

Consequently, the pilot and the balloon company owed no duty to the plaintiff. The inherent risks of ballooning include crashing. 

The court then looked at the issue of whether or not the plaintiff received any safety instructions prior to the flight. A guide, outfitter or operator of a balloon which is an inherently dangerous activity still owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks. However, those steps must not fundamentality alter the activity. “The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous.” 

What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity  without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so. 

The issue then becomes whether or not the balloon operator owes a duty to provide safety instructions. 

Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty.

Foreseeability is a primary factor in determining whether a duty exists. In this case, the court concluded that providing a safety briefing was custom in the industry. Nor would giving a safety lecture be overly burdensome to the balloon operator or pilot.

The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires
only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry. 

So the balloon operator did owe the plaintiff a duty to provide her with a safety instruction. However, that was not the end of the analysis. To prove negligence you must prove a duty, a breach of the duty an injury that was proximately caused by the breach of the duty and damages. In this case, the failure to provide a safety breeching was not the reason why the plaintiff broke her leg, or at least, the plaintiff could not prove the proximate causation. 

Examined another way, for the injury of the plaintiff to be proximately caused by the breach of duty of the defendant, the acts of the defendant must be a substantial factor in that injury. 

To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.”

The balloon landing was called a jarring and violent crash by all witnesses. The plaintiff was on the bottom of the pile of people when the basket stopped moving, lying on its side. Any safety talk probably would not have helped the plaintiff prevent her leg from breaking in such a landing. “The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury.” 

Consequently, although the balloon operator breached his duty of care to the plaintiff, the injury that occurred to the plaintiff was due to the crash of the balloon which was a violent event rather than the plaintiff being able to deal with a normal landing properly.

So Now What? 

The safety instruction duty is troublesome. How is an outfitter supposed to provide a safety instruction if the customer  cannot comprehend what is being said. In this case, there might have been a way around it if the son could translate for  the plaintiff. However, in many cases a family from a foreign country with little or no English shows up for a recreational  activity with little or no understanding of the activity or the risks. The outfitter has no way of making sure the customer  understands the safety briefing if the outfitter does not speak the customer’s language. 

In California, if you have a customer who does not understand what you are saying, you must probably turn them away.

 What do you think? Leave a comment. 

Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529

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By Recreation Law       James H. Moss

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