Negligence Per Se is the violation of a law or regulation created to protect a group of people. If you are Negligent Per Se, you have no defenses.Posted: February 26, 2018
Defendant took plaintiffs on a guided personal watercraft tour with an employee/guide who had not been trained as required by Florida’s law.
State: Florida: United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida
Plaintiff: Ronald Tassinari, an individual, Sheila Silva, individually, and as next best friend of Ashley Silva
Defendant: Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Defendant. Key West Water Tours, L.C., a Florida corporation, Third-Party Plaintiff
Third Party Defendant(s): Jeffrey Wilkerson, Third-Party Defendant
Plaintiff Claims: Negligence Per Se
Defendant Defenses: : (1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness; (2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness; (3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and (4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.
Holding: For the Plaintiff
If there is a statute that applies to your business or activity, you must know and abide by the statute. Failure to do so can void all of your defenses and in some cases the claim may not be covered by your insurance policy.
Here the defendant rented personal watercraft to the plaintiffs without instructing the guests as required by Florida Statute. By not abiding by the statute, the defendant’s defenses were void and the defendant’s liability was decided by the court.
The plaintiff’s, husband, wife and daughter paid for a guided personal watercraft (PWC or formerly known as jet ski) tour. During the tour, another tour participant panicked and drove his PWC at a high rated of speed into the plaintiff’s.
The plaintiff’s sued the defendant PWC tour company. The PWC tour company sued the participant who drove the PWC into the plaintiff’s as third-party plaintiffs versus third party defendants.
The defendants relied on four defenses:
(1) it is entitled to exoneration from liability because there is no evidence of negligence or unseaworthiness;
(2) alternatively, it is entitled to have its liability limited to the value of the watercraft (approx. $ 3,000.00) because it was without privity or knowledge of any negligence or un-seaworthiness;
(3) Florida statutory law does not apply; and
(4) Plaintiff Tassinari’s claims are barred by the waiver and “hold harmless” provisions of the rental agreement.
The plaintiff argued that because the defendant did not hire or require it’s guides to meet educational requirements required by state law, the defendant was negligent per se.
Negligence per se is negligence that violates a law or regulation which was created for the purpose of protecting a group of people that were injured by the plaintiff.
The Florida statutes in question were:
Florida Statute § 327.39
§ 327.39. Personal watercraft regulated.
(b) 1. It is unlawful for the owner of any leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, or any person having charge over or control of a leased, hired, or rented personal watercraft, to authorize or knowingly permit the watercraft to be operated by any person who has not received instruction in the safe handling of personal watercraft, in compliance with rules established by the commission.
The second statute was Florida Statute § 327.54
§ 327.54. Liveries; safety regulations; penalty.
(1) A livery may not knowingly lease, hire, or rent a vessel to any person:
(e) When the vessel is equipped with a motor of 10 horsepower or greater, unless the livery provides prerental or preride instruction that includes, but need not be limited to:
1. Operational characteristics of the vessel to be rented.
2. Safe vessel operation and vessel right-of-way.
3. The responsibility of the vessel operator for the safe and proper operation of the vessel.
4. Local characteristics of the waterway where the vessel will be operated.
Any person delivering the information specified in this paragraph must have successfully completed a boater safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and this state.
The first statute required the person renting a PWC to instruct the renter on the use of the PWC. The second statute identified the instructions to be given and required the person giving the instructions to have successfully completed a boater safety course. The defendant’s employee in this case had not given the necessary instructions and had not completed a boater safety course.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
Federal judiciary has a rule they apply to these situations called the Pennsylvania Rule. The Pennsylvania Rule states:
…when a ship at the time of an collision is in actual violation of a statutory rule intended to prevent collisions, it is no more than a reasonable presumption that the fault, if not the sole cause, was at least a contributory cause of the disaster and in such a case the burden rests upon the ship of showing not merely that her fault might not have been one of the causes, or that it probably was not, but that it could not have been.
Basically, the Pennsylvania rule shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff, who normally has the burden to proof the defendant was at fault, to the defendant, requiring the defendant to prove, it was not at fault.
The next hurdle is the state law’s relationship to admiralty law. Admiralty law is a Federal law, in fact, a series of international laws, to control transportation of goods and people across borders and international travel. States can only make laws concerning admiralty issues if there is not federal law on the subject already. If the federal law conflicts with the state law, the federal law applies.
Applying the Pennsylvania rule, because Defendant violated statutory rules intended to prevent boat collisions, the Court presumes that Defendant’s fault caused the collision and the burden shifts to Defendant to show this violation could not have caused the accident.
There is no federal law concerning the rental of PWCs. So, the two Florida statutes were available to the plaintiff. Additionally, the Florida statutes were created to protect a specific group of people, and the plaintiffs were part of the group to be protected.
These statutes, under Chapter 327 Vessel Safety, were enacted to protect boater safety, including the prevention of collisions. Further, these statutes were enacted, in part, to protect the safety of renters of watercraft (see e.g. § 327.54), so Plaintiffs are among the class of persons intended to be protected by the statutes.
Side note: the defendant co-owner admitted he was not familiar with Florida’s statutes that were at issue. The court’s response was the classic you learn in law school, and you should learn in kindergarten. “…ignorance of the law is not a defense.”
The defendant argued that instruction would have changed the accident or prevented the accident. The court did not buy that argument.
However, greater knowledge often gives a greater sense of control. Therefore, it is possible that if Jeffrey Wilkerson had received proper instruction in handling the watercraft, he might not have panicked. Defendant has not shown that its violation of statutory rules “could not” have contributed to the accident. Therefore, Defendant’s fault is presumed.
For the defendant not to be liable, the must be completely free of fault, and the violation of the Florida statute created fault on the part of the defendant; consequently, the defendant was not free of fault.
The defendant then argued the limitation of liability under admiralty law applied. The limitation of liability states the defendant is liable to the value of the vessel after the accident. Here the defendant argued the extent of their liability was $3,000 because that was what the PWC was worth.
For the defendant to use this defense, required a two-step test:
(1) “the court must determine what acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness caused the accident;” and (2) “the court must determine whether the ship owner had knowledge or privity of those same acts of negligence or conditions of unseaworthiness.
Since the defendants could have easily investigated whether their employee had taken a boater safety course, and they did not, they could not take advantage of the limitation of liability because the defendant should have had knowledge of the unseaworthiness of the PWC.
The next defense argued was the release signed by the plaintiff. Here the release was void because it violated public policy. The statute created a safety requirement on the part of the defendant. The statute was enacted to keep the public safe. Therefore, failing to keep the public safe was a public policy issue.
[A] clause in an agreement exempting a party from tort liability is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if the agreement would exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute, as the safety obligation created by the statute for such purpose is an obligation owed to the public at large and is not within the power of any private individual to waive.”
In this case, the Florida statutes violated are boater safety statutes imposing a standard of conduct on owners and liveries of vessels. It would be against public policy to enforce contract clauses purporting to exempt liveries from liability for violating these statutes. While the release and waiver provisions in the rental contracts are sufficient to release Defendant from liability for ordinary negligence, the provisions are invalid as against public policy when applied to liability arising from violation of these statutes.
The defendant’s motion for summary judgement was denied. The plaintiff had filed a motion for summary judgment as to the liability of the defendant. That motion was granted. The sole remaining issue then was the amount of the liability, how much the defendant owed the plaintiff.
So Now What?
Releases are the best defense to lawsuits in most states. However, the most effective legal argument to void a release is to claim the defendant was Negligence Per Se. Here the court found that because the statutes were created for public policy reasons, the release violated public policy and thus was void.
Most state courts just void the release stating the release cannot prevent claims based on violation of a statute.
More importantly, any time a statute is created that applies to your business or activity, you must understand and follow the statute. Both statutes argued above had criminal penalties for violation of the statutes. Not only was the defendant liable in a lawsuit for violating the statutes, the defendants could be fined by the state.
Don’t get into business without knowing the law.
More articles on Negligence Per Se
Motion for Summary Judgment failed because the plaintiff’s claim was based upon a failure to follow a statute or rule creating a negligence per se defense to the release in this Pennsylvania sailing case.
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