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The risk of hiking over lava fields is an obvious risk; falling while hiking is also a possibility….so is suing when you do both…but you won’t win

Plaintiff signed up on a cruise ship to hike on a lava field. She was fully informed of the risks and admitted to knowing the risks in advance which is defined as assumption of the risk.

Andia, M.D., v. Full Service Travel, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88247

State: California and Hawaii, the accident occurred in Hawaii but the lawsuit was filed in California

Plaintiff: Ana Maria Andia, M.D.

Defendant: Full Service Travel, a California corporation, Celebrity Cruises, Inc., a foreign corporation, and Arnott’s Lodge and Hike Adventures

Plaintiff Claims: (1) negligence, on grounds that Defendant breached its duty of care to Plaintiff by failing to ensure the safety of participants in their excursions, and (2) negligence, on grounds that Defendant failed to warn Plaintiff of the known dangers and risks associated with the lava hike. & (1) negligence, on grounds that defendant cruise breached its duty of care to Plaintiff by failing to offer reasonably reliable and safe excursions, and (2) negligence, on grounds that defendant cruise failed to warn Plaintiff of the dangers and risks associated with the lava hike.

Defendant Defenses: assumption of the risk

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2007

Simple case, however, the facts are long because the defendants provided the plaintiff with a ton of information about the risks of the activity which the court reviewed.

The plaintiff signed up for a hike in the lava fields in Hawaii while on a cruise ship. The information about the hike stated the distance of the hike was always changing because of the lava flow. The hikers could return at any time; however, if they did they would return the way they came by themselves.

This information was provided to the plaintiff in a description of the hike provided by the defendant cruise line, in a brochure that plaintiff was given, in a release the plaintiff signed, and during a talk before the hike began.

Plaintiff in her deposition also admitted that she was an experienced hiker, that falling was always a possibility when hiking.

During a point in the hike, the plaintiff decided to turn around. While hiking back to the ranger station she fell breaking her foot. She sued for her injuries.

The lawsuit was started in the Federal District Court of Southern California. The defendant travel company was dismissed earlier in the case. The defendant hiking company cruise line filed motions for summit judgment.

Summary of the case

The court first looked at the claims against the defendant hiking business. (The type of entity or whether it was an entity was never identified, and the court was not sure what the hiking company was also.)

The basis of the motion from the hiking company was that the risk of “…slipping, falling and injuring oneself on uneven, natural terrain is an inherent risk of lava hiking.”

The duty of care owed by the defendant hiking company in this situation is:

…a duty to use due care and avoid injury to others, and may be held liable if they’re careless conduct injures another person. The doctrine of primary assumption of the risk is an exception to this general rule. The doctrine arises where “by virtue of the nature of the activity and the parties’ relationship to the activity; the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury.”

The court then found the doctrine of primary assumption of the risk applied because:

…conditions or conduct that otherwise might be viewed as dangerous often are an integral part” of the activity itself. “The overriding consideration in the application of primary assumption of risk is to avoid imposing a duty which might chill vigorous participation in the implicated activity and thereby alter its fundamental nature.”

Summing up its own analyses of primary assumption of risk the court stated:

If the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff’s injuries if the defendant “engages in conduct so reckless as to be totally outside the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport or activity” or increases the inherent risk involved in the activity.

The plaintiff argued that the hiking company, Arnott’s, was guilty of gross negligence because:

Arnott’s did nothing to provide for Plaintiff’s safety on the lava hike once she determined she could not go forward; Arnott’s did nothing to warn plaintiff of the dangers of approaching too closely to the coastline; Arnott’s did not ensure plaintiff had sufficient water for her trip back to the Rangers station; Arnott’s was understaffed; Arnott’s failed to follow protocol by pressuring plaintiff to return to the ship rather than obtain treatment at the Hilo emergency room; Arnott’s offered misleading information about the trail markings; Arnott’s provided plaintiff with falsely reassuring directions back to the Rangers station; and Arnott’s permitted Plaintiff to hike in sneakers instead of boots. Plaintiff contends that this conduct constituted gross negligence, making the Agreement, which purports to exculpate Arnott’s of liability, unenforceable. Plaintiff also contends that the Agreement is an unconscionable and unenforceable contract of adhesion because it is a pre-printed form, contained multiple signatures and there was no alternative for Plaintiff but to sign it or wait at the Rangers station while the others hiked, losing a day of her cruise vacation.

However, the plaintiff’s arguments were not backed up with any facts. Arguing a point with facts that do not support your argument fails.  

The Court concludes that the doctrine of primary assumption of risk applies, negating Arnott’s general duty to prevent plaintiff from slipping and falling on lava rock, an inherent risk of the activity of lava hiking.

Nor did the actions of the defendant hiking company increase the risk of injury to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff knew the risks of hiking prior to the hike in question and admitted that in her deposition. The plaintiff was given information about the hike and had the risks of the hike explained to her four different ways prior to the hike. The plaintiff assumed the risk of here injuries, and the risk that plaintiff suffered causing her injury were visible to anyone hiking in the lava field.

The next issue the court reviewed with regard to the defendant hiking company was the duty to warn. “It is established law, at least in the exercise of ordinary care, that one is under no duty to warn an-other of a danger equally obvious to both.”

The court found for the hiking company on this issue based on the facts and found the plaintiff assumed the risk of her injuries because she could see the risk and continued on anyway. If you can see the risk, you cannot complain about not knowing about the risk.

The plaintiff’s claims against the cruise ship were then reviewed. A cruise ship has a different duty of care owed to its passengers. “The duty of care of the owner of an excursion ship is a matter of federal maritime law. That duty is to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.”

Here the plaintiff presented no evidence that the defendant cruise line did not exercise reasonable care to the plaintiff. The same facts when applied to the case also showed the defendant cruise ship had not breached its duty to warn to the plaintiff. The information and brochure were provided by the cruise ship to the plaintiff when she signed up for the hike.

[I]t is generally accepted that where a carrier.  . . has a continuing obligation for the care of its passengers, its duty is to warn of dangers known to the carrier in places where the passenger is invited to, or may reasonably be expected to visit.” However, “there is no duty to warn of a danger that is as obvious to the injured party as to the defendant.”

So Now What?

The case was won on two issues. The first was the risks of the activity were pointed out over and over again by the hiking company to the plaintiff. Information, brochures, safety talks all stated the risks of the activity which the plaintiff accepted when she turned around.

The second issue was the plaintiff in her deposition admitted to hiking experience. Possibly one or the other could have been enough to prove a defense for the defendants in this case; however, since both were so clear, the defense was easily proven.

Many times on hikes, we point out risk, as well as birds and beauty, to others with us. If you are guiding a hike, this requirement should concentrate your attention to these issues and your actions in pointing out risks. You can cover many of the risks of an activity such as hiking with a general talk at the beginning. “We are going to be walking on uneven surfaces. There will be many rocks and roots to trip on. Pay attention to where you are putting your feet and make sure you are on a solid surface when walking.”

As much as releases are an important defense and source of information for your guests, assumption of the risk is making a comeback in the outdoor recreation industry. If your release fails for any reason, assumption of the risk is the best and maybe the only other defense you have available.

Besides the more your gusts know and understand the risks of the activity the less likely the will be to be injured and the better the experience they will have. Leave scaring guests to fun houses at Halloween.

The one confusing issue in the case was the courts use of California law to decide a case that occurred in Hawaii. The federal courts are for situations like this when the parties are from different states. The plaintiff was from California, and the defendants were from Hawaii. However, without an agreement as to the law that should be applied to the case, Hawaiian law, I believe should be applied. Here the court used California law.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss               #Authorrank

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2 Comments on “The risk of hiking over lava fields is an obvious risk; falling while hiking is also a possibility….so is suing when you do both…but you won’t win”

  1. Courtney Devlin says:

    Yes this seems like the plaintiff knew the risks before hand and should not have made as many accusations against the hiking company as she did. Earlier in the article, she did state she was an “experienced hiker” and knew there was a risk of falling. As for the courts decision to use California law to govern the case, I believe the hiking company should have used a forum selection clause in their contract agreement to avoid this situation. Using Hawaii law would have made the case easier on the hiking business and court. I do not believe the plaintiff should win this case.

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  2. Brooke says:

    This article is pretty obserd to me because the plaintiff knew that what she was doing was dangerous. There were plenty of warnings and she still chose to do it. She fell due to lack of paying attention and being careful. I think that it made perfect sense that she didn’t win this suit. First of all, hiking over lava is dumb in the first place and if she wants to take that risk, it’s on her. Second of all, as I said, she read the warnings so she knew what COULD happen.

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