Results of this injury during a sailing race are scary. Federal judge unloaded on the defendant when a girl could not figure out to move when the boom shifts. Judge wanted to see safety orientation and warning labels on a personal sailboat!

The liability created by this decision will hopefully remain off shore and solely related to sailing and admiralty law; If not, never take someone outdoors again.

When your buddy wants to bring his bartender your boat for a sailing race, don’t let him. Court created liability when it found no safety training or warning labels for a group of people going sailing.

Ray v. Lesniak, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28301

State: South Carolina, United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division

Plaintiff: Raven Renee Ray

Defendant: Steve A. Lesniak

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: never could figure that out

Holding: for the plaintiff

Year: 2018


Either the defendant failed to present a defense or the court ignored it. Either way, this decision creates massive liability on the part of a trip leader in what was once referred to as common adventure activities. A group of people going out to recreate together on the weekend.


It is going to be easier to pull quotes from the decision than to outline the facts in this case. It will also give you a better understanding of the court’s position from the beginning.

At the time of the incident at issue, Ray was a 29-year-old female working two jobs in the food and beverage industry, volunteering at an acupuncture clinic, and simultaneously pursuing advanced degrees in psychology and clinical counseling at The Citadel. Ray had never been on a sailboat before the day of the incident.

Colin Skinner (“Skinner”), who Ray knew as a “regular” customer at the Oak Bar Tavern where she worked. Skinner was a crew member on the Celadon. Skinner has been sailing with Lesniak for “[r]oughly five years.” Lesniak allowed Skinner to invite a guest on the boat.

Lesniak did not give safety instructions to any of the guests, including Ray, who was on the Celadon. He also did not give any written instructions to guests. Furthermore, he did not have a written safety checklist or conduct a safety and operational briefing before the Celadon left the marina. At the time of the incident, there were no safety placards or visual displays on the Celadon stating that there were dangerous places to sit on the boat, such as “around any rope, boom.” Lesniak delegated the giving of safety instructions to two crew members, neither of whom testified during the trial.

Lesniak testified that members of his crew told Ray to move “several times” and that the crew members were aware that she did not move–even after Lesniak had called for the gybe maneuver. For example, Truog was aware that Ray was sitting in front of the main sheet when Lesniak gybed. Truog saw “the boom [come] over, and that [Ray] was pushed down to the side of the boat.”

If Lesniak had waited to gybe or made sure that Ray was in a safe location, Ray would not have been hit by the main sheet.

After Lesniak did the gybe maneuver, Ray was hit by the main sheet, the force of which threw her from her seated position onto the deck of the boat.

The plaintiff said she was OK; the race continued. Later that day and the next week she again said she was OK. However, eventually, she sued.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The defendant, owner of the board, did not put up a good defense. In fact, the way the court restated his positions, it seemed the court thought he was pretty arrogant. The plaintiff hired an expert witness who started out stating the personal sailboat should be labeled like an amusement ride.

There were also no written instructions on the “hull or deck of the boat or bow or the stern, starboard side” that said where to sit, and no one gave written instructions to Ray when she was on the boat. There was also no formal verbal safety briefing.

The plaintiff’s expert further stated that only experts should have been on the boat.

Wahl opined that competitive sailboat racing “requires a large number of experienced crew to adequately handle the fast-paced activities normally observed during this often dangerous and close quarters style of competitive sailing.” Wahl further opined that “[o]nly highly experienced persons should be aboard for these events.” Id. Based on his review of the evidence, Wahl testified that “there appeared to be a lot of people” on the Celadon, and that “safe places . . . were probably a little bit difficult to find.”

Based on the one-sided statement of facts and testimony only from the plaintiff’s expert, the court easily found the defendant liable.

Lesniak had a duty to: (1) properly administer safety briefings to Ray that included where the safe places to sit on the boat were during the race; (2) warn Ray that the gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken; (3) not gybe until Ray was no longer sitting in front of the main sheet; and (4) not hit Ray with the main sheet rope during the gybe maneuver.

The court then piled it on, following basic first-year law school tort classes in explaining why the defendant was liable.

The court further finds that it was completely foreseeable to Lesniak that Ray could be injured by his failure to warn her that a gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken that would involve moving the main sheet that she was sitting directly in front of, and his failure to prevent the main sheet from hitting Ray. Lesniak’s negligence was a proximate cause of Ray’s injuries; but for this breach of duty, Ray’s injuries would not have occurred.

The court then proceeded to find all four required components of negligence were proven. The first was whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty.

It is well-established in general maritime law that a vessel operator has a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of his passengers. Lesniak was the captain, and so was in charge of the vessel at the time of Ray’s injury. As such, he was charged with a duty of care to his passengers. This standard of care owed to a passenger by a vessel operator under maritime law is reasonable care under the circumstances at that particular time in each case. “The extent to which circumstances surrounding maritime travel are different than those encountered in daily life and involve more danger to passengers, will deter-mine how high a degree is reasonable in each case.

However, the court’s findings were just out there. The court found the defendant had a duty to determine if the plaintiff had any prior sailing experience.

In this case, the circumstances surrounding a sailboat participating in a race in the Charleston harbor call for a heightened degree of care. Additionally, before stepping on board the Celadon, Ray had never before been on a sailboat, a fact of which Lesniak was unaware of and failed to inquire about.

Second was whether the defendant had breached that duty to the plaintiff.

The court finds that Lesniak failed to act as a prudent mariner in failing to: (1) provide adequate posted, written, or verbal warnings to Ray regarding the potential dangers of movement and position on the Celadon and how to avoid those dangers; and (2) in failing to make sure that his passengers were in a safe location at all times, especially before performing a gybe maneuver which causes the boom and its related parts to swing quickly from port to starboard or vice versa. The court finds that these acts and omissions constitute a breach of Rule 5 of the Inland Navigation Rules, the common-law lookout duty, and the general duty of due care under Admiralty and South Carolina law.

For causation, the court determined it was the defendant’s job to prove there was no causation. That is not how causation normally works!

The court’s determination that Lesniak breached his duty to keep a proper lookout imposes upon him the burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that his breach of duty did not contribute to the incident. The record here does not support such a showing. Therefore, the court concludes that Lesniak’s negligence caused the main sheet to strike Ray’s head and, therefore, Ray’s resulting injuries.

The judge did find the plaintiff was 25% liable for her injuries under the theory of comparative negligence.

Specifically, Ray failed to pay attention to warnings from multiple crew members to move from her position in front of the main sheet rope. Ray was to blame, in part, for being hit by the main sheet. The court finds that Ray was 25% to blame, and so reduces her damages by 25%.

The court found the following four specific times when the plaintiff was liable.

1. Ray was told to move away from the main sheet by multiple crew members, including Truog and Becker, but did not move.

2. After getting hit by the main sheet, Ray did not ask anyone for medical attention and did not appear to be in need of any medical attention.

3. When Ray got off the Celadon at the conclusion of the race, Lesniak asked her if she was “okay” and she replied that “she was fine.”

4. A few days after the incident, Lesniak contacted Ray to give her the option of going to see Bill Lynch, a crew member on the Celadon during the incident and a doctor, at no cost. Ray declined.

The judge then started looking at damages and found every single medical damage the plaintiff had presented had been proved and gave the plaintiff all the damages she requested including pain and suffering, past and future emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life. Basically, the trifecta of damages.

Those damages totaled:

$958,758.15,6 plus prejudgment interest in the amount of twenty-two thousand, nine-hundred and fifty-two dollars and forty-four cents $22,151.44, and postjudgment interest at the legal rate from the date of this order.

So Now What?

The defendant did not put up a fight, or if he did it was ignored by the court. In fact, the entire decision is a review of the plaintiff’s case and nothing more.

What is scary, is the requirements that a trip leader on a common adventure now has a duty to enquire, duty to educate and a duty to warn.

Sailboats are not going to come with stickers and warning labels.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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