‘TIS THE SEASON FOR INJURIES…. possibly Leading to the season of lawsuits!

Several news reports have described lawsuits between skydivers who collide. In one case, one skydiver had logged 1800 jumps when he was hit in midair and injured by another skydiver. The injuries ended his skydiving and work career. A judge ruled the skydiver (and friend) who hit the Plaintiff (the injured skydiver) was negligent and awarded the Plaintiff $748,000. See Skydiver Wins Lawsuit Against Teammate. Yet skydivers hit each other every once in a while. See Skydivers injured in midair collision and YouTube has several videos of skydivers colliding.

The accident occurred when an eight-man team including the Plaintiff and Defendant, ended a formation and broke apart to open their chutes. The Plaintiff and Defendant where both members of the team and had been practicing these maneuvers. The Defendant’s elbow hit the plaintiff in the head, knocking the Plaintiff unconscious and tangling the chutes. The Defendant was able to free himself from the tangled chutes and landed safely. The Plaintiff was not and fell suffering broken bones and brain injuries.

The lawsuit seems to be full of folly. (A politically correct term in this case.) Immediately what comes to mind is that someone with 1800 jumps knows, understands and assumes the risk of an injury. The judge did not see it this way. For this discussion, however, a different point needs to be discussed. Does your release protect your customers from this type of lawsuit?

Your customers can be involved in lawsuits in three ways:

  1. As the Plaintiff – the person initiating the lawsuit.
  2. As a witness to the incident which caused the lawsuit.
  3. Rarely do we think of our customers as a Defendant in the lawsuit. However as rare as we may think it is, it is more common then you would imagine. (Co-participant liability)

Numerous articles have discussed the first case, i.e. as a Plaintiff, previously in this newsletter and it will continue to be our focus, however, the 2nd and 3rd ways your clients can be sued are also important. That your clients may be brought into a lawsuit as either a witness or a defendant is also quite important to you and can have a tremendous impact on your business. Some examples of how your clients can be involved as witnesses or defendants follow.

Having your customers called as witnesses can create significant public relations problems: You have six customers in a boat. One is injured and sues another customer. You have four other customers who are subpoenaed as witnesses. I can foretell that you now have six angry former customers. There is not much you can do which will appease everyone involved, except to end the lawsuit quickly; assuring the other witnesses they are not going to be brought into the suit as parties. (“Parties” is the term that defines Plaintiffs and Defendants).

In the 3rd scenario, your customer could be sued in part because you can’t and the injured person is looking for money: The future plaintiff walks into an attorney’s office and describes his injuries and the accident to an attorney. The attorney, after discovering a release, (and realizing he cannot sue the outfitter) decides to sue the person who caused the injury, your customer. Your customer fell off the raft, knocking the injured person into the water; or started the avalanche while backcountry skiing; or the youth who while playing falls on a tent injuring the occupants inside.

For whatever reason, your customer is now in a precarious situation. They may or may not be liable for the injuries. In the latter instance, they are upset over lost time and money. If they are liable for the injuries, they may be confused as to why someone would sue them for an accident while recreating. Either way, they may be mad at you for not helping them out of a bad situation.

Worse, the defendant/customer may not have insurance to cover the cost of the defense or any judgement. Normally homeowner’s insurance will cover this type of claim, however not all homeowner’s policies may cover this and not everyone has homeowner’s (or condor or renter’s) insurance.

Other than moral support, you cannot provide much help – except from your own pocket. Your insurance policy is only available if you or your employees are the named defendants. No matter what you may want to do, you are paying your own bills for attending the courtroom drama, (which is nothing like TV, in real life, the main problem is always keeping the judge and jury awake!).

However, your insurance company should be paying your attorney to be their. There are probably going to be several issues that could lead to problems if your attorney is not on top of the case.

Bad press is also going to accompany any lawsuit between your clients. The press will jump on this and wonder why you are not involved. The defendant client will bring in the press to ask the question of why you have not been named as a defendant as well. Either way, from the sideline you appear uncaring or apathetic while your clients beat each other up in court.

But this can be prevented. When your release is being written, make sure the “people” covered by the release includes everyone. Not just the employees, but Directors, Officers and Agents of the corporation, employees, managers and owners of the business, and “OTHER PARTICIPANTS.” This is a very simple solution to what can be a disastrous affair.

EXAMPLE

You are running a Mountaineering course and one climber slips, fails to self-arrest and slams into another climber. Besides sixteen puncture wounds from the crampon points, the injured participant has a broken ankle and no insurance. There is a question as to who failed to keep the tension between the falling client and the guide who was first on the rope. Did the guide slow down, did the student speed up or did they both fail to be observant.

You and the client who fell are sued.

In the normal scenarios the insurance company lawyer files a motion. Based on the release, the company is dismissed leaving a very angry student to stand alone for the damages.

In scenario #2, you are not dismissed from the suit. Your defense is to try to blame the client who fell. You now have a very mad student and a bad reputation in the industry.

Scenario #3: The falling client with no money forms an alliance with the injured client to testify against you and leave you holding an empty money bag.

Scenario #4: Your release defends both you and the falling student thus protecting that student from liability. You have a good witness on your side rather than one running to offer their cooperation to the opposition and between the release, assumption of risk, and the guide and client as witnesses you have a good defense.

The simple inclusion of language protecting everyone in the lawsuit can keep your and your clients coming back for more accidents in the wilderness.

Here, the release covering everyone shows the witnesses they are not going to be drug into the suit. Also, the release helps your clients understand the suit should end quickly. However your clients feel, whether the injured party needs money or is wrong, NO ONE wants to be involved in litigation.

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