“We anticipate that our strong recent momentum will continue as we move into some of the historically busiest days of the year.”
— Richard Zimmerman, Cedar Fair CEO
“An extra hundred thousand in attendance can cover all kinds of mistakes.”
— John Hildebrandt, author of “Always Cedar Point”
The emerging pandemic in the spring of 2020 left many businesses closed or operating under limited conditions, and many types of businesses remained in that state throughout 2020 and through much of 2021. Banquet venues, concert halls, conference centers and similar large-event locations were among the hardest hit by those restrictions.
Chief among those were amusement parks, many of which were either closed, or open for limited hours, under a limited capacity, or with ride restrictions in 2020 and part or all of 2021. In an effort to control their financial losses, those amusement park venues had to try to decide what to do with season ticket holders who had already purchased tickets for the 2020 season.
Cedar Fair, which operates Cedar Point in Sandusky and Kings Island near Cincinnati, as well as Canada’s Wonderland, Carowinds, Knott’s Berry Farm, King’s Dominion and several other parks, tried to make accommodations for season ticket holders, including carrying their 2020 tickets over in 2021.
But that wasn’t enough for some ticket holders, who didn’t want the chance to come back in future years, but instead just wanted their money returned to them in cold, hard cash. (Or, perhaps, in digital ones and zeroes in their credit card statements.) Some of those ticket holders requested refunds, but their request was refused. That led one season ticket purchaser in Washington State who had 2020 passes to Knott’s Berry Farm to initiate a federal class action lawsuit against Cedar Fair.
Because the company has its headquarters in northwest Ohio, the suit was initiated at federal district court in Toledo. Cedar Fair’s immediate response was to ask that the suit be dismissed. Their reasoning was partially that ticket holders had already been compensated by extending their passes into 2021, and partly that Cedar Fair shouldn’t be responsible at all, since the pandemic was an “Act of God” for which Cedar Fair was not liable, and which it could not have predicted.
Act of God claims are not at all uncommon in natural disasters, and the applicability of that defense to pandemic-related claims is already being hotly litigated in a variety of settings. Last month, Judge James G. Carr denied the request from Cedar Fair to dismiss the lawsuit, noting that there was at least an arguable claim that the company did not warn season ticket holders that an Act of God could require Cedar Fair to close its parks for a lengthy period of time.
The monetary impact is not small. The law firm representing the plaintiffs in the case estimates that the class of potential season ticket holders could be as large as two million people. Considering the fact that a basic season ticket at Cedar Point is $99 and a Platinum Pass is $230, the loss to Cedar Fair could run into hundreds of millions of dollars depending on the ultimate outcome of the case. That said, the denial of a motion to dismiss is not necessarily indicative of the likelihood that the plaintiff will ultimately succeed in a case, but rather, merely an indication that there is a chance that they could and as a result, the case must proceed so that the court can gather more evidence.
The eventual ruling has broad implications. There are several other large amusement park chains. There are myriad sports teams and other large-scale venues that had to shut down for much of 2020.
Because the case will now proceed to an evidence gathering and presentation stage, it may be months (if not years) before a final decision is reached. It is entirely possible that Cedar Fair will decide that negotiating a package of potential benefits to 2020 season ticket holders is cheaper than litigating the case further, but if not, this federal case may give us “Act of God” findings that guide companies the next time a global pandemic occurs. Until then, ride the Raptor or the Blue Streak and enjoy some amusement park treats now that the park is operating at full capacity again.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.