Dive Buddy (co-participant) not liable for death of the diver because the cause of death was too distant from the acts of the plaintiffPosted: February 24, 2014
This case was brought to my attention because of the suit for the ski buddy fatality in Canada in the news recently. (See Canadian suit would hold you liable for your ski buddy’s death.)Are you liable for your buddy’s death if you are participating in a sport together. The issue pivots on whether or not there is an expected responsibility (duty) on behalf of the buddies.
Plaintiff: Cully, Adam, and Brandy Jo Rasmussen, children of the deceased and the estate of the deceased
Defendant: Eugene L. Bendotti, husband of the deceased
Plaintiff Claims: negligence
Defendant Defenses: there was no negligence
Holding: for the defendant
This is one of a few cases where a co-participant or in this case dive buddy is held liable for the injuries or deaths of the other participant. In this case, a husband and wife were diving together to recover a snowmobile 100’ deep in a lake. On the fourth dive of the day, the husband realized he had not attached his power inflator to his buoyance compensator. He dropped his weight belt and ascended, leaving his spouse, dive buddy, below.
The wife was found drowned after becoming entangled in a rope.
The buoyance compensator is a PFD (personal floatation device) designed for diving. It is inflated and deflated as you dive to keep your body at the level or depth in the water you want. Many divers will deflate and inflate the buoyance compensator (BC) several times during a dive as they descend, stay at a level and descend or ascend again.
A trial was held to the court which held that the husband did owe a duty to the spouse. However, that duty was terminated once the husband’s emergency occurred. The court also found that the husband’s failure to act as a proper dive buddy was too distant from the cause of death of the spouse to be the proximate cause of her death.
The plaintiff’s appealed.
In this case, the plaintiff’s appealed the errors; they felt the court made in its decision. Those are called “assignment of error(s).” The plaintiff argued that the court came to the incorrect conclusion in the determination of the facts and the application of the law.
Summary of the case
The court accepted several conclusions of fact and law from the trial court that are necessary to understand its analysis and, which are critical legal issues. The first was a dive buddy owes a duty of care to his or her dive buddy. Consequently, a failure to exercise this duty, which results in an injury to the dive buddy, can be negligent.
The existence of a duty is a question of law. Whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, however, turns on the foreseeability of injury; that is, whether the risk embraced by the conduct exposes the plaintiff to injury. “The hazard that brought about or assisted in bringing about the result must be among the hazards to be perceived reasonably and with respect to which defendant’s conduct was negligent.”
The trial court found the defendant had not breached his duty because his personnel emergency ended any duty he owed to his dive buddy. The trial court labeled this as the emergency doctrine. However, the appellate court defined the emergency doctrine as:
The emergency doctrine was developed at common law and states the commonsense proposition that a person faced with an emergency should not be held to the same standards as someone given time for reflection and deliberation.
A defendant is entitled to the benefit of the emergency doctrine when he or she undertakes the best course of action given an emergency not of his or her own making.
The appellate court did not hold the emergency doctrine did not apply; however, its statements indicate such because it went on to discuss proximate cause.
Proximate cause is the term defined to relate the breach of the duty to the injury.
Proximate cause has two discreet elements. The first, cause in fact, requires some physical connection between the act (the failure to connect the power inflator) and the injury (Bonny’s death). The second element of proximate cause involves legal causation. Id. And that is a policy consideration for the court. The consideration is whether the ultimate result and the defendant’s acts are substantially connected, and not too remote to impose liability. Id. It is a legal question involving logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.
The court ruled that the cause of the plaintiff’s death was the plaintiff’s own acts, not caused by the defendant. The court questioned, “…if Gene had properly connected his power inflator, would Bonny be alive today?” The trial court stated, and the appellate court accepted that the act of the defendant descending was not the cause of the plaintiff’s death.
There was too much between the ascension of the defendant and the entanglement which caused the drowning to be linked. The ascension was not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s death.
So Now What?
The decision in the Canadian court on whether a ski buddy owes a duty of care to another skier will probably not end with the jury’s decision. See Canadian suit would hold you liable for your ski buddy’s death. Ski buddy meaning the guy you don’t know skiing next to you. However, here we have a definitive decision that a dive buddy in a scuba diving owes a duty to their dive buddy.
This is a very different legal relationship than found in competitive sports where someone may be injured due to another participant and the nature of the game. See Indiana adopts the higher standard of care between participants in sporting events in this Triathlon case. Here one participant in the sport is legal responsible, as defined by the sport or activity or sometimes the two people, for the other person.
If you agree to watch or take care of someone in a sport, you may be accepting liability for that person. Be aware.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
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