A theater is a building that is used for dramatic performances. Theaters may also be outdoors but are most often inside and include a stage for the performance. An individual may be charged an admission fee to enter the theater in order to view:

  • A play;
  • A musical;
  • An opera;
  • A movie; or
  • Other performances.

What Duties Does a Theater Owner Have?

A theater owner has duties similar to other property owners. They must exercise reasonable care to ensure that the interior of the theater and the exterior of the theater are reasonably safe.

The theater owner is required to warn patrons of hidden dangers and provide safe seating. They must guard against dangers if they have reason to believe they will occur. If the owner does not do so, they may be found negligent.

There are several possible injuries that may occur at a theater. These may be caused by:

  • Slipping and falling on the floor;
  • Defective seating;.
  • Horseplay of patrons;
  • Thrown objects; or
  • Pushing and crowding.

Pursuant to premises liability laws, the theater owner’s duty of care will depend on the reason the individual is at the theater. There are three categories that individuals fall into for a property owner’s duty of care, including:

  • An invitee;
  • A licensee; and
  • A trespasser.

The laws regarding these categories may vary by state. However, in most cases, an individual who purchased a ticket to see a show at a theater will fall into the invitee category.

An invitee is an individual who is invited onto the property for a business purpose. Invitees are owed the highest duty of care. A theater owner must reasonably inspect for, discover, and fix any unknown hazards in areas of the property to which an invitee may have access. For example, a theater owner has a duty to ensure the restroom facilities are safe for patrons.

In some cases, however, a patron may be a licensee. A licensee is an individual who is on the property for their own purpose or for social reasons. This may include a friend the theater owner has invited to watch a show.

The duty of care level owed to licensees is lower than that owed to invitees. The theater owner is required to take reasonable care in protecting a licensee from any known dangers on the property, but is not required to inspect for and/or discover any unknown dangers.

A trespasser is an individual who enters the theater without the theater owner’s permission. This may include an individual trying to sneak in to watch the show or an individual the owner has previously asked to leave the premises.

A theater owner does not have a duty to protect a trespasser who enters their property but they are not permitted to willfully injure them. The theater owner may be liable for their injuries, however, if the theatre owner is aware of frequent trespassers on the property and that there is an unsafe condition. For example, if the theater owner is aware that trespassers often sneak in the back door and that there is very low lighting and a wet floor, the theater owner may be liable for a trespasser’s slip and fall injuries.

The following are some conditions must be present for a theater owner to be liable under these circumstances:

  • The hazardous condition existed because the property owner maintained it or created it;
  • The unsafe condition was likely to cause serious bodily harm or death; and
  • The theater owner failed to exercise due care to warn the trespassers of the condition and the risk present.

What Might Show Negligence by the Theater?

In order for a theater owner to be found negligent, they must have known or should have known about the unsafe condition that caused an injury. Or, the cause of the injury must have been inherently dangerous.

A theater owner is negligent if they do not exercise reasonable care in keeping their premises in a safe condition. Negligence occurs when the theater owner fails to exercise reasonable care that results in injury to another.

Factors that may suggest negligence of the theater owner include:

  • Lack of employees to supervise the theater, including:
    • ushers;
    • attendants;
    • supervisors; or
    • other personnel;
  • The owner does not regularly inspect and maintain the theater; or
  • The owner arranges the theater in a dangerous manner by putting things in unusual places.

It is important that the injured party demonstrate that they were not careless in failing to avoid the injury. If the plaintiff somehow contributed to their own injury, their damages may be reduced based on contributory negligence laws or other legal restrictions.

For example, suppose a theater patron observes a dangerous area, such as a wet floor that is marked with a wet floor sign. If the patron enters that area voluntarily and slips on the wet floor, it may affect their damages award if they sustain an injury.

What About the Theater Building?

Buildings may become dangerous due to daily use, wear and tear, or a lack of maintenance. A theater owner has a duty to keep their property maintained and safe. Some examples of commercial structures that could be considered to be dangerous include:

  • Balconies, decks, and porches;
  • Staircases and elevators;
  • Handrails and other support beams;
  • Stairwells;
  • Overhead lighting;
  • Overhead shelves;
  • Product displays; or
  • Faulty doors, such as automatic doors.

What About Theater Lighting?

Lighting is an integral part of any dramatic performance. Partial darkness is essential for most theaters. It must be dark enough to avoid having patrons strain their eyes.

However, there must also be enough lighting to allow individuals to safely leave their seats during a performance or find their seats if they arrive late. Improper lighting conditions may lead to injuries when patrons attempt to find or leave their seats.

It is important to note that a lack of illumination alone is not enough to prove negligence. It must be combined with another danger, such as a slippery floor, which was not illuminated due to the low lighting.

Are There any Limits on Liability for a Theater Owner?

There may be some limits on liability for a theater owner. The theater owner’s negligence must have caused the injury. In order for a plaintiff to recover from the theater owner, the injury could not have been caused by some other unforeseen event.

For example, a theater owner is not likely to be liable for panic inside the theater, because that is an unforeseen event. Therefore, they will likely not be liable for injuries suffered as a result of the panic.

The theater owner is responsible for foreseeable risks. They are not required to fix every possible dangerous condition.

Additionally, if the dangerous condition or defect did not exist long enough for the theater owner to possibly discover it, they will likely not be liable for injuries resulting from the condition. A plaintiff’s recovery of damages may also be limited by contributory negligence or assumption of risk.

Should I Contact a Lawyer If I Have Been Injured at a Theater?

It is important to contact an experienced personal injury lawyer if you have been injured at a theater. A lawyer can review your case, determine if you are able to recover damages, and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary. It is important to contact a lawyer as soon as possible, as there are time limits on filing these types of claims.