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Utah Court reaches to find a boat renter liable when a boat sinks on Lake Powell due to high winds

The Federal District Court found the boat rental operation was negligent to defeat damages defenses provided by admiralty law. Causation, the relationship between what the defendant did and the accident giving rise to the claim seems to be stretched in this case.

In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121565

State: Utah, United States District Court for the District of Utah, Central Division

Defendant: In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, as owner of a certain 20′ 2007 Baja Islander 202 for exoneration from or limitation of liability

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501-30512

Holding: for the Plaintiff

Year: 2014

This case is a little out of the unusual for me because it concerns a powerboat. However, the legal issues could apply to any boat; whitewater raft, sea kayak, kayak or whatever. More importantly, it could affect canoe liveries or boat rentals if the decision is accepted by other courts.

One way of defending against claims due to boating accidents is by using federal law. If a river or body of water is determined to be navigable as defined under federal law, then a defendant can use a federal statute and admiralty law to limit any possible claims. The reason you would want to do this is the maximum that can be recovered against someone using this section of admiralty law, is the value of the vessel after the accident plus the value of the cargo. So most cases, when there has been a catastrophic loss the value of the raft zero, as the boat is destroyed or sunk. Even a raft that is recovered with all of its gear would still be limited to $10 to $20,000.00 in value.

The first issue you have to overcome when using admiralty law limits is to establish jurisdiction. The body of water or river has to qualify as being a navigable river under a specific section of the law. The problem is there are 17 different definitions of navigable under federal law, plus who knows how many more under state law. You must apply the correct definition of navigable to the case.

In this case, the accident occurred on Lake Powell. Because Lake Powell spans two states and is used for commercial traffic it was declared to be navigable under the law.

The basis for this claim is three couples rented a boat from the concessionaire at the marina. Eventually, the boat sank with four of them drowning. The winds picked up and exceeded the maximum wind speed the boat should have been operated at. The defendant filed this action in federal court claiming the value the vessel after the accident was zero and therefore, there was no recovery available to the plaintiffs. The court disagreed.

The boat that sunk was only rated to be workable at wind speeds of 31 miles an hour or less. At 31 miles an hour the boat manual stated the driver should have had a lot of boating skills. The boat was also not positively buoyant; meeting that if the boat filled with water, it would sink and would not stay on the surface. There was also no law or requirement that the boat be buoyant.

One of the main issues facing the defendant in this case was they normally handed out a weather report both at the time of the rental of the boat and the time the boat left the dock. The plaintiffs received a weather report when they completed the paperwork but not in the day they left. However, they did leave the docks a half-hour earlier than when the rental operations normally open.

One risk of using admiralty law to avoid liability in a boating accident is admiralty law does not allow the defendant to use a release. I suspect that a release might’ve been used in this case because the paperwork and renting a boat usually go hand in hand.

The plaintiffs were three couples from Florida, who came to Arizona to vacation. They rented a boat from the marina the intention of going up to see natural bridges and coming back on the same day. They rented the boat before the day they left on their trip. That day they received a weather forecast from the boat rental agent. The forecast changed in the middle of the night and when they picked up the boat, they did not receive a new forecast. On the way back from visiting the Natural Bridges Arch they had to stop at another marina to refill. After leaving that marina they went out into the Lake Powell and on the way back the boat sunk due to high winds.

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

One of the first main issues the court looked at was who could determine if boat rentals should stop because of the weather. Several employees of the defendant testified that wind speeds from 25 to 30 miles an hour, boat rentals were stopped. However, there was no written policy on when boat rentals were stopped and each employee answered with a slightly different answer. More importantly nothing in the transcript indicated that there is any reliable way to determine what the weather forecast was for the wind speed was at the rental operations.

A sub argument of this was not reviewed by the court or raised by the defendant was, whether or not there was a duty on the part of the rental operation to contact the other marina and warn the people not to go back out on the lake. No phone call was made by the rental operation to the other marina.

This argument was futile though because the only way to contact the boat drivers before, or after they left the second marina was by radio. The plaintiff’s never turned the radio turned on.

Ms. Ambrosius did not attempt to call Dangling Rope Marina to have personnel there warn the Prescott Party of the high winds although she knew that the Prescott Party would stop there to refuel. She did not notify any of the tour captains to watch for Boat 647 and alert them of the danger. She did not attempt to call the Prescott Party on the marine radio. (Although that would have been futile because Mr. Brady did not turn on Boat 647’s radio.) In sum, the court finds that Ms. Ambrosius did nothing to locate Boat 647.

The federal statute that the defendant relied upon was the Limitation of Liability Act, 40 6U. S. §§ 30501 – 30512. This statute provides exoneration of liability for the boat owner up to the value of the vessel and freight after the accident. There is an exception to the rule if there is knowledge or is in the law states privity with the owner of the vessel to the possibility of the damage.

The Act does, however, create an exception to that general rule by defining “claim, debt, or liability”: “claims, debts, and liabilities subject to limitation under subsection (a) are those arising from any embezzlement, loss, or destruction of any property, goods, or merchandise shipped or put on board the vessel, any loss, damages, or injury by collision, or any act, matter, or thing, loss, damage, or forfeiture, done, occasioned, or incurred, without the privity or knowledge of the owner.”

It is this knowledge or privity that allows the plaintiff to argue that the plaintiff defendant could have stopped them and save their lives.

Admiralty law was created for the transportation of goods and people across the oceans. It was adopted as uniform laws among countries with interests in shipping. As such, many parts of admiralty law make more sense when viewed in this light a boat on the high seas.

There’s a two-step inquiry to determine whether the act shall apply based on the privity or knowledge of the owner of the boat.

Courts use a two-step inquiry to determine whether a petitioner is entitled to exoneration or limitation of liability when sued for negligence. “First, the court must determine what acts of negligence . . . caused the accident. Second, the court must determine whether the shipowner had knowledge [of] or privity [with the person who committed] those same acts of negligence . . . The claimant bears the burden of proving negligence and if successful, the burden shifts to the shipowner to prove lack of knowledge or privity.

In this case, the court held that negligence on the land is similar to negligence in the water. The plaintiffs had to prove that there was a connection between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury.

Torts occurring on navigable waters are governed by maritime law. “The elements of a maritime negligence cause of action are essentially the same as land-based negligence under the common law.” A claimant must prove “a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, breach of that duty, injury sustained by [the] plaintiff, and a causal connection between [the] defendant’s conduct and the plain-tiff’s injury.”

The ship owner owes a duty of reasonable care to all passengers on his ship. Or, in this case, the court held the rental operation owes a duty of reasonable care to the people renting his boat.

“Under Maritime law, a plaintiff is owed a duty of ordinary care under the circumstances.” “We hold that the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances of each case.”

The court found that the defendant breached his duty of reasonable care when it allowed plaintiffs to leave the morning of the accident. “Here, the court concludes that Aramark breached its duty of reasonable care when it allowed the Prescott Party to leave the morning of April 25, 2009.”

This conclusion was reached because the defendant had a duty to warn the renters of the weather issues. This is where this case takes on some concerns that exceed those of the normal rental situation. Hertz never gives your weather forecast when you leave its rental operation with their car.

I suspect that duty was created by the defendant normally providing all renters of its boats with a copy of the weather forecast because that was not done, then it created a duty.

Aramark, primarily Ms. Ambrosius, had a duty to be advised of the current weather forecasts and wind advisories before allowing any party to leave the marina in an Aramark power boat. This is particularly true because, as Aramark knew, in the spring, the weather changed constantly. Phyllis Coon testified that in the spring, shutting down rentals was considered almost on “an hourly basis” because of the erratic weather. And “[s]pringtime is al-ways windy on the lake.”

The second issue the court found or had an issue with, was the boat owner’s manual cautioned that when the winds exceeded 31 miles an hour, the boat should not be driven. Aramark’s only requirement when renting a boat was to make sure that the person was 18 years or older and had a valid driver’s license. Again, the same requirements to rent a car as Hertz used. The court held that a person’s prior ability and experience were important.

The boat owner’s manual cautioned that when wind speeds reached 31 miles an hour, only experienced operators might be able to safely operate the boat. Yet Aramark rented to anyone eighteen years or older, with a valid driver’s license, without regard to that person’s previous boating experience.

All these facts allow the court to conclude that Aramark could possibly be negligent.

The court, when it considers these facts, concludes that Aramark had frequently in the past recognized that high winds could be dangerous to boaters. Aramark should have been aware, if it was not, that high winds were forecast for April 25, 2009. And it was foreseeable to Aramark that if those who had rented Baja 202 Islanders for a trip on Lake Powell the morning of April 25, 2009, were allowed to depart, the boats could sink because of the high winds. It was further foreseeable to Aramark that if the boats sank, particularly in the cold April water, the passengers could suffer injury and even death. Aramark breached that duty when it allowed the Prescott Party to leave.

The next issue is whether or not breach of the duty of the boat renter/defendant was the cause of the injury. Here the court found that by allowing the boating party to leave the other marina that was a factor in the sinking of the boat. “Here, the court concludes that Aramark’s failure to stop the Prescott Party from leaving was a substantial factor in the sinking of Boat 647 and the resulting harm.”

(Which begs the questions, how were you going to stop someone from leaving a marina when their car and lodging were at their destination?)

Both marinas were owned and operated by the same defendant.

The final issue the court was, whether or not there was privity between the defendant and what happened. Privity in admiralty law is a weird definition of the word. In this case, the defendant must prove that they did not have any knowledge of the negligence. Normally, this would make sense when the owner of the boat is sitting on shore thousands of miles away and the captain or a member of the crew does something that was negligent causing the sinking of the boat.

In this case because the boat was a rental and owned by a defendant Corporation the court held all the employees had a duty or had privity to the negligent acts. “When a corporation owns the vessel, the test is whether culpable participation or neglect of duty can be attributed to an officer, managing agent, supervisor, or other high-level employee of the corporation.”

Because the general manager and several employees of the defendant could stop the rental, the court said the discretionary authority to close the boat rentals, was held to have been a negligent act.

Finding this the court held that Aramark could not exonerate or limit its liability in this case. The case would then proceed to trial for the full amount of damages claimed by the plaintiffs. This decision is not a finding of negligence against the defendant only that there was enough negligent for the court to conclude Aramark could be liable.

So Now What?

Here’s a situation whereby trying to be good and help people renting your boats you created your own liability.

The experience of the person running the boat also creates its own nightmares as you well know someone is going to lie to you when they fill out a form asking for experience. The will tell you they have plenty experience when want to rent a boat. The experience issue is a nightmare.  no way you can test someone’s experience or trust them. If they say they can rent a boat, and it sinks, the rental operation is liable for not testing them. If they don’t test now, they are liable.

All six people were from Florida, which is surrounded by water and has thousands of boat able canals, rivers and lakes, and only one person of the six had any boating experience.

The causation issue is another issue that is disturbing. Normally, causation is defined as a closer or more direct relationship between what the defendant does in creating the injury of the plaintiff. Here causation was found by allowing them to leave the marina.

However, that was not the cause of the sinking of the boat. The boat sunk because it was driven improperly in high winds. However, the court then came back and said earlier, that because they didn’t check the boating experience and didn’t hand out the weather report that was also part of the accident. The court created circuitous routes to get to the fact that they wanted the defendant liable in this case.

It is disturbing when it can quickly become a nightmare for any program or business in attempting to help the people coming to its business. Probably in the future the weather forecasts will be in a stack on the desk with a little sign that says weather forecasts take one if you want one. There will be a sign that says the boat should not be operated if the wind speed is above XX miles an hour and there will be a wind gauge nearby.

None of which will do anything save anyone’s life. Boats are rented for weeks and the weather changes. The wind in on a cove could be calm, and you hit the open part of the lake, and the wind is catastrophic. The information you obtained earlier, a day or a week will have no value where you are when trouble starts.

Besides, how many people can effectively guess the wind speed?

I think another issue here, but not written in the opinion is the boat operation’s manual had a specific wind speed where the boat should not be used. Consequently, since the manufacturer suggested the boat not be used at that speed, probably the court thought the rental operation should not rent boats when speeds exceeded the manufacturer’s recommendations.

I also suspect that some type of wind meter will be installed on the marina property so that the rental people can look at the wind and see if it should be rented. But again then who has the ability to make that call to the wind meter when the person rents the boat says the winds find, but by the time they go back to the car get their items they want to take with them and walk out the winds kicked up does the 18-year-old summer intern holding the boat for the people as they enter it have the ability to say hey it’s too windy can’t go. How’s he going to know at the end of the dock? In the future, more people may become injured because they didn’t pick up a weather forecast and didn’t understand what they’re getting into because nobody the defendant is going to stick their neck that is to tell them.

In the past rental, operations have had no liability once the equipment rented leaves the renter’s operation.

If you are interested in having me write your release, fill out this Information Form and Contract and send it to me.

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In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121565

In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, as owner of a certain 20′ 2007 Baja Islander 202 for exoneration from or limitation of liability, Plaintiff.

Case No. 2:09-CV-637-TC-PMW

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF UTAH, CENTRAL DIVISION

2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121565

August 29, 2014, Decided

August 29, 2014, Filed

PRIOR HISTORY: In re Aramark Sports & Entm’t Servs., LLC, 289 F.R.D. 662, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42692 (D. Utah, 2013)

CORE TERMS: boat, wind, weather, lake, mile, rental, weather forecast, advisory, marina, forecast, zone, morning, bridge, rope, vessel, life jackets, gusts, mph, claimant, privity, high winds, channel, radio, rent, foreseeable, allision, mooring, rig, boating, manager

 

COUNSEL:  [*1] For Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, a Delaware limited liability company, as owner of a certain 20″ 2007 Baja Islander 202 for exoneration from or limitation of liability, In Re, Counter Defendant: John R. Lund, LEAD ATTORNEY, SNOW CHRISTENSEN & MARTINEAU, SALT LAKE CITY, UT; Matthew W. Starley, LEAD ATTORNEY, SNOW CHRISTENSEN & MARTINEAU (ST GEORGE), ST GEORGE, UT; Terence S. Cox, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Marc A. Centor, PRO HAC VICE, COX WOOTTON GRIFFIN HANSEN & POULOS LLP, SAN FRANCISCO, CA.

For Taranto, Terry The Estate and Heirs of, Taranto, Maryanne The Estate and Heirs of, Defendants, Counter Claimants: Daniel Thomas Benchoff, Marvel Eugene Rake, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, RAKE PETTI PC, PHOENIX, AZ; Robert S. Prince, LEAD ATTORNEY, KIRTON MCCONKIE, SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

For Prescott, Robert The Estate and Heirs of, Prescott, Katherine The Estate and Heirs of, Defendants, Counter Claimants, Counter Defendants: Casey W. Stevens, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, STEVENS & WILLIAMSON PC, ALPHARETTA, GA; Daniel Thomas Benchoff, Marvel Eugene Rake , Jr., LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, RAKE PETTI PC, PHOENIX, AZ; Robert S. Prince, LEAD ATTORNEY, KIRTON MCCONKIE, SALT [*2]  LAKE CITY, UT.

For James Brady, Heather Brady, Defendants: Jeffery Scott Williams, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jeffrie L. Hollingworth, NELSON CHRISTENSEN HOLLINGWORTH & WILLIAMS, SALT LAKE CITY, UT; William D. Holm, LEAD ATTORNEY, John T. Masterson, PRO HAC VICE, JONES SKELTON & HOCHULI PLC, PHOENIX, AZ.

For Baja Marine, Defendant: Alex B. Marconi, Craig A. Logsdon, LEAD ATTORNEY, Patrick X. Fowler, PRO HAC VICE, SNELL & WILMER (AZ) ONE ARIZONA CTR, PHOENIX, AZ; Elisabeth M. McOmber, LEAD ATTORNEY, SNELL & WILMER (UT), SALT LAKE CITY, UT.

JUDGES: TENA CAMPBELL, United States District Judge.

OPINION BY: TENA CAMPBELL

OPINION

FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC (Aramark) owns a fleet of boats on Lake Powell that it rents to the public. On April 25, 2009, one of the Aramark power boats sank with six people on board. Four people, Terry and Maryanne Taranto, and Robert and Katherine Prescott, died in the accident. Two people, James and Heather Brady, survived.

Aramark filed a petition in this court to limit its liability under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501-30512, from claims made by the Taranto Estates, the Prescott Estates and James and Heather Brady (the Claimants). The court held a [*3]  five-day bench trial to resolve the questions of whether any negligent conduct by Aramark employees caused the injury and whether Aramark had privity with the negligent actor or knew of the negligent conduct.

Because the court concludes that negligent conduct by Aramark employees was a cause of the injuries and also concludes that Aramark had privity and/or knew of the negligent conduct, the court denies Aramark’s petition to limit its liability.

FINDINGS OF FACT

  1. THE PARTIES
  1. Aramark

Aramark is a concessionaire for the National Park Service (NPS) in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. As concessionaire, Aramark operates the Wahweap Marina, located on Lake Powell just south of the Utah-Arizona border. Aramark operates other marinas on Lake Powell north of the Utah-Arizona border: Dangling Rope, Halls Crossing and Bullfrog.

Aramark will rent a power boat to anyone who is eighteen years or older and has a valid driver’s license. No previous boating experience is required.

Lake Powell’s main channel is 186 miles long when the lake is at high water. In the spring, the water is cold and the weather is frequently windy. The weather is erratic and can quickly change. In April, wind speeds [*4]  often exceed thirty miles an hour and can even reach fifty miles an hour. The weather can be calm at one part of the lake but have high winds and waves at another.

  1. The Claimants

James Brady, Robert Prescott, and Terry Taranto were retired police officers with the St. Petersburg, Florida Police Department. From time to time, they got together socially with their wives. Heather Brady, James Brady’s wife, had recently retired from the St. Petersburg Fire Department after twenty-six years as a firefighter and EMT.

In April 2009, the three couples (the Prescott Party) went on vacation together to Lake Powell. Robert Prescott had previously visited Arizona and Lake Powell and, in Heather Brady’s words, “Bob [Prescott] was familiar with the area so he just lined up all of the places we would go.” (Trial Transcript dated March 4, 2014 (“March 4 Tr.”) at 392 (Dkt. No. 310).)

  1. FRIDAY APRIL 24
  1. Arrival at Wahweap Marina

Members of the Prescott Party arrived at Lake Powell on Friday, April 24, 2009, and checked in at the resort at the Wahweap Marina area. The Bradys and the Prescotts, who arrived at Wahweap Marina on Friday before the Tarantos, went to Aramark’s boat rental office to rent a [*5]  boat for the next day. Phyllis Coon, a rental agent for Aramark, and Karen Ambrosius, Wahweap Marina general manager and the person in charge of boat rentals, were in the office. Mr. Brady, Mr. Prescott, and Ms. Coon discussed Mr. Brady’s previous boating experience,1 the Prescott Party’s plans to travel to Rainbow Bridge, which would take a full day, and the weather forecast for Saturday, April 25, the day the Prescott Party would be on the lake. The weather forecast, which was based on National Weather Service data collected at 3:44 a.m. that Friday morning, predicted the weather on Saturday, April 25 as “Breezy, with a south southwest wind, between 15 and 23 mph, with gusts as high as 37 mph.” (National Weather Service 7-Day Forecast, Ex. J-7.) Given the weather forecast, Ms. Coon suggested that they “might be more comfortable” on one of the tour boats that was available “because it was chilly on the lake and that going in the power boat they would need to go straight up to Rainbow Bridge just to ensure that they get up there, and then stop at Dangling Rope on the way back to fuel up.” (March 4 Tr. at 360 (Dkt. No. 310).) Mr. Brady and Mr. Prescott declined Ms. Coon’s suggestion [*6]  of a tour boat trip, and Mr. Prescott signed the rental contract for a Baja 202 Islander, number 647 (Boat 647). Mr. Prescott was given a copy of the weather forecast (Ex. J-7). Ms. Coon told Mr. Prescott that he would be given an updated weather report the next day before the Prescott Party departed on the boat. But this did not happen.

1 James Brady has some boating experience. He began boating as a young boy, “maybe as early as 10 riding on the boat. Dad and I would fish. From there, high school years running up and down the beach. A friend of mine had a boat. Running up and down the beach. And then my brother, who is now a licensed captain, he went into the fishing scene, so I [rode] on boats with him before, mullet boat.” (Id. at 465 (Dkt. No. 310-1).) Mr. Brady has owned several boats, including a 17-foot Mitchell, a 21-foot Mako, and “a couple Voyagers” (a Voyager is sport fishing boat). (Id.) When asked what percentage of his boating experience was in a lake and what percentage was in an ocean, Mr. Brady answered, “95 gulf or bay inland intercoastal and 5 percent lake.” (Id. at 472-73.) He estimated that the coldest water he had been in was “70, I believe 70, 72 degrees, [in] Florida.” (Id. at 473.)

  1. Boat 647

Boat 647 is just [*7]  over twenty feet in length and can hold eight passengers. U.S. Coast Guard regulations do not require boats over twenty feet in length to have positive flotation, and Boat 647 did not. (A boat with positive flotation has the ability to float and not sink for a period of time even if filled with water.) Boat 647 had a marine band radio that could receive and monitor both the hailing channel (channel 16) and the weather channel. Type II PFDs (life jackets) were on Boat 647.

The Baja 202 Islander is identified as a design category “C” boat that can withstand an upper limit wind speed of 31 miles per hour. (Baja Marine Owner’s Manual, Ex. C at 1.8.) The manual warns: “It is only the most experienced operators and crew that may be able to operate a boat safely under these conditions.” (Id.)

III. SATURDAY APRIL 25

  1. The Weather Forecasts

The National Weather Service maintains a website that is available to the public. Phyllis Coon testified that employees in Aramark’s boat rental office accessed the National Weather Service site for weather information. Moreover, it was Aramark employees’ general practice to keep the marine band radio on at the boat rental office during working hours to monitor [*8]  the weather.

The court reviewed several exhibits that showed the National Weather Service’s forecasts and advisories for April 24 and April 25, 2009. One of those exhibits included the National Weather Service 7-day forecast given to the Prescott Party, which read, “Breezy, with a south southwest wind, between 15 and 23 mph, with gusts as high as 37 mph.” (Ex. J-7.) That forecast, which was the only weather forecast given to the Prescott Party, was last updated at 3:44 a.m. on April 24. At various times after that, on April 24 and April 25, the National Weather Service updated the weather information that, if accessed through the website, would have been incorporated into a 7-day weather forecast similar to the one the Prescott Party received.

In its forecasting system, the National Weather Service divides the United States into geographical areas called “zones” and then issues forecasts for each zone. Two zones relevant to this case are (i) the Arizona Zone 5, which is a fairly small area, just below Lake Powell, and it includes Page, Arizona; and (ii) Utah Zone 21, which covers most of Lake Powell. Zone 21 forecasts give a more accurate prediction of weather conditions on Lake Powell, [*9]  but a comparison of the two zones’ forecasts for the relevant days showed that the forecasts contained similar data. (See Ex. A-120.)

Significantly, the National Weather Service updated the weather forecast at 3:18 p.m. on April 24 (almost twelve hours after issuance of the forecast data given to the Prescott Party) for Zone 5. That update announced a wind advisory in effect from 8 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 25, predicting 20 to 35 mile an hour winds and gusts around 45 miles an hour in the late morning and afternoon. (Trial Transcript dated March 7, 2014 (“March 7 Tr.”) at 907 (Dkt. No. 313-1).) A new 7-day forecast, if generated for the Prescott Party when they arrived to pick up Boat 647, would have reflected these changes (i.e., increases in wind speed) and a new wind advisory.2 And shortly before 3 a.m. for Zone 21 the National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for Lake Powell effective from noon on Saturday until 6 p.m. that evening, predicting sustained winds increasing to 25 to 35 miles an hour and gusts to around 55 miles an hour late in the afternoon. (Id. at 902.) A few minutes later, at 3:10 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for Zone 5, Glen Canyon [*10]  and Page, that would be in effect from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 25. (Ex. K. at 40.) That forecast predicted “South winds 15 to 20 mph with gusts to around 35 mph shifting to the southwest 20 to 30 mph with gusts to around 45 mph in the late morning and afternoon.” (Id.)

2 The National Weather Service issues advisories to inform the public about potentially hazardous situations. (March 7 Tr. at 885.)

Alton Ketchersid, Aramark’s resident district manager for water operations at Lake Powell, testified that it was his general practice to print the weather forecast at his home each morning at about 6 a.m. so he could distribute it to the administrative office and to the lodge. In his absence, Carrie Markus, an Aramark employee, would distribute it. Both Mr. Ketchersid and Ms. Markus were gone on April 24 and April 25, 2009.

  1. Pre-Departure Briefing

Because the Prescott Party had asked to leave early the morning of September 25, Bob Graham, a boat rental instructor for Aramark, met them on the dock at about 7:30 a.m. that morning (the boat rental office opened at 8 a.m.). Mr. Graham, who was not a witness at trial but testified through deposition, testified that he gave the Prescott [*11]  Party instructions about the use of the radio, the location of the PFDs, the route to Rainbow Bridge, and the weather forecast (the same one given to the Prescott Party the day before (Ex. J-7)).

According to Mr. Graham, before he met the Prescott Party that morning, he had gone to the rental office before it opened and looked at the weather forecast on the computer. But he testified that the weather forecast he viewed was the same one the Prescott Party had been given the day before.

Mr. Graham testified that he told Mr. Prescott that wind gusts around 37 to 40 miles an hour could be dangerous and that he recommended that the Prescott Party go directly to Rainbow Bridge and return. He told them, “You don’t have time to go sightseeing, to do anything else except go up there and get back before the weather turns bad on you.” (Dep. of Robert Graham at 21.) The Bradys do not remember this discussion.

  1. Stopping Boat Rentals

Aramark did not have a written policy addressing when it would stop renting boats because of weather conditions. But Alton Ketchersid testified that “if we were standing on the dock and the wind was blowing 31 miles an hour, we would not rent the boat, no.” (Trial Transcript [*12]  dated March 3, 2014 (“March 3 Tr.”) at 101 (Dkt. No. 312).) He explained that “it was not a good practice” to do so. (Id. at 102.) He acknowledged that if the wind speed exceeded 31 miles an hour on the lake, it could be “dangerous” for those on the boats. (Id. at 103.) Mr. Ketchersid testified that the decision whether to stop boats from leaving the marina was “mainly based on the safety of the guests.” (Id. at 105.)

Phyllis Coon believed that Aramark had “a general practice” of “shut[ting] down all rentals” if there were sustained winds of thirty miles an hour. (March 4 Tr. at 336 (Dkt. No. 310).) Aramark also would not rent boats if wind or weather advisories were issued.

Jon Maris, who was the former Aramark Director of Operations, testified that if he read a wind advisory predicting gusts of 55 miles an hour, he would shut down rentals. (Dep. of Jon Maris at 47.)

Karen Ambrosius, in her deposition testimony, testified that “[w]here we had sustained winds, . . . meaning constant winds of 30 miles per hour we would not send a boat out.” (March 3 Tr. at 226 (Dkt. No. 312-1) (quoting deposition testimony).) Ms. Ambrosius had the authority and discretion to decide if boat rentals should be shut down. She had previously exercised that [*13]  authority, shutting down boat rentals if sustained winds reached thirty miles an hour or if the National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory.

Robert Grippentog, who with other family members, runs Las Vegas Boat Harbor on Lake Mead, testified in his deposition that his business does not rent power boats if the sustained wind speeds are 25 miles an hour. (Dep. of Robert Grippentog, Jr. at 43.)

According to Horace Schuler, the general manager of Lake Mohave Resort outside of Bullhead City, Arizona, if the weather forecast was for sustained winds of 25 to 35 miles an hour, gusting to 55 miles an hour, the resort would not rent ski boats. (Dep. of Horace Schuler at 105.)

  1. Karen Ambrosius Stops Boat Rentals

Ms. Ambrosius testified that she was unaware of either the updated weather forecasts or the wind advisories. Ms. Ambrosius claimed that it was not until approximately 10:30 a.m., when she heard the National Weather Service wind advisory on Channel 16, that she knew that high winds were predicted. According to Ms. Ambrosius, she then walked outside and looked at the lake. Only then did she decide to end boat rentals.

Ms. Ambrosius also testified that the Prescott Party had told her [*14]  that they would be gone for only half a day. This testimony is contrary to the testimony of Ms. Coon, James Brady, Heather Brady and Robert Graham.

When asked what steps she had taken to alert the Prescott Party of the high winds, Ms. Ambrosius testified that both she and her office manager called the dispatch at the National Park Service and told them that the boat was late. But there is no record of any calls being made to the National Park Service until after Boat 647 had sunk. (Ex. J-39 at BAJA00036, Ex. J-40.) According to Steve Luckesen of the National Park Service, if calls had been made to the National Park Service, they would be reflected in the National Park Service log. (Dep. of Steve Luckesen at 517.)

She also claimed that she called the Aramark parts room, asked that if there was a chase boat available, and said “let them know that we have a boat that is late.” (March 3 Tr. at 250-51 (Dkt. No. 312-1).) Nothing in the record supports this claim, and Ms. Ambrosius admitted that she could not testify that she sent a chase boat to search for Boat 647.

Ms. Ambrosius did not attempt to call Dangling Rope Marina to have personnel there warn the Prescott Party of the high winds although [*15]  she knew that the Prescott Party would stop there to refuel. She did not notify any of the tour captains to watch for Boat 647 and alert them of the danger. She did not attempt to call the Prescott Party on the marine radio. (Although that would have been futile because Mr. Brady did not turn on Boat 647’s radio.) In sum, the court finds that Ms. Ambrosius did nothing to locate Boat 647.

  1. The Prescott Party’s Trip

The Prescott Party left the marina at about 8 a.m. James Brady was operating the boat because he had the most experience. During the trip to Rainbow Bridge, Heather Brady took photographs. Once they arrived at Rainbow Bridge, the party (with the exception of Katherine Taranto) hiked to the Rainbow Bridge monument. When they returned to the dock, they met some hikers who were waiting for a boat to arrive. James Brady tried to call Dangling Rope Marina to tell someone there about the hikers, but he could not contact the marina. He again turned off the radio.

The Prescott Party began the return trip to Wahweap Marina. They stopped, as they had been instructed to do, at Dangling Rope Marina to refuel. Once the boat had been refueled, the Prescott Party left. As they were leaving [*16]  Dangling Rope, Heather Brady saw both a tour boat and a National Park Service boat apparently headed toward Dangling Rope Marina.

  1. Boat 647 Sinks

After the Prescott Party left Dangling Rope, the channel became more open and the water was choppier. Heather Brady moved to the back seat to be more comfortable. No one in the Prescott Party was wearing a life jacket.

When they reached an area of the lake called Padre Bay (on the Utah side of the state line), the water grew rougher and spray came over the bow. Heather Brady felt water at her feet and she called to her husband. She heard him calling “mayday, mayday, mayday, vessel 647” over the radio. (March 4 Tr. at 411 (Dkt. No. 310).) She jumped out of the boat and grabbed one of the life jackets that floated by her. She swam with the life jacket to Terry Taranto and gave it to him. She grabbed another life jacket and swam to her husband. Then Terry Taranto “came over a wave and said, ‘I need a life jacket. I need a life jacket.'” (Id. at 414.) She found an extra life jacket and gave it to him. She and Jim Brady, using the life jackets they found floating in the water and a blue canvas bag that was also in the water, were able to reach a rock pile. [*17]  They climbed on the rock pile and waited until they were rescued by a National Park Service boat. The other members of the Prescott Party did not survive.

When Boat 647 was recovered, it did not have a breached hull. The boat had no value.

CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

Aramark has filed a petition under the Limitation of Liability Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 30501-30512, seeking exoneration or limitation of liability under 46 U.S.C. § 30505 (titled “General limit of liability”). Section 30505 provides that “the liability of the owner of a vessel for any claim, debt, or liability described in subsection (b) shall not exceed the value of the vessel and pending freight.” 46 U.S.C. § 30505(a) (emphasis added). The Act does, however, create an exception to that general rule by defining “claim, debt, or liability”: “claims, debts, and liabilities subject to limitation under subsection (a) are those arising from any embezzlement, loss, or destruction of any property, goods, or merchandise shipped or put on board the vessel, any loss, damages, or injury by collision, or any act, matter, or thing, loss, damage, or forfeiture, done, occasioned, or incurred, without the privity or knowledge of the owner.” 46 U.S.C. § 30505(b) (emphasis added).

Courts use a two-step inquiry to determine whether a petitioner is entitled to exoneration or [*18]  limitation of liability when sued for negligence. “First, the court must determine what acts of negligence . . . caused the accident. Second, the court must determine whether the shipowner had knowledge [of] or privity [with the person who committed] those same acts of negligence . . . .” Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976). The claimant bears the burden of proving negligence and if successful, the burden shifts to the shipowner to prove lack of knowledge or privity. Id.

  1. ARAMARK’S NEGLIGENCE

Torts occurring on navigable waters are governed by maritime law. “The elements of a maritime negligence cause of action are essentially the same as land-based negligence under the common law.” Withhart v. Otto Candies, L.L.C., 431 F.3d 840, 842 (5th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). A claimant must prove “a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, breach of that duty, injury sustained by [the] plaintiff, and a causal connection between [the] defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury.” In re Cooper/T. Smith, 929 F.2d 1073, 1077 (5th Cir. 1991).

  1. Duty/Breach

“Under Maritime law, a plaintiff is owed a duty of ordinary care under the circumstances.” In re Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC, 624 F.3d 201, 211 (5th Cir. 2010). “We hold that the owner of a ship in navigable waters owes to all who are on board for purposes not inimical to his legitimate interests the duty of exercising reasonable care under the circumstances [*19]  of each case.” Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 632, 79 S. Ct. 406, 3 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1959).

The court in In re Signal Int’l, LLC, 579 F.3d 478 (5th Cir. 2009), gave a thorough analysis of duty in a maritime negligence action. In Signal, the owner of two barges named the MISS TIFF and the JACK KING filed a petition under the Limitation of Liability Act, when the two barges broke loose from their moorings during Hurricane Katrina and allided3 with a bridge located approximately 4.7 miles away on Interstate 10 in Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) repaired the bridge and opposed Signal’s petition. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the order of the trial court denying, after a bench trial, exoneration but granting limitation of liability.

3 “An allision is a collision between a moving vessel and a stationary object.” Signal, 579 F.3d at 484 n.4 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

The trial court found that Signal had used “an improvised, untested method” of securing the two vessels and that Signal’s negligence caused the allision. Id. at 486. Signal argued that it was entitled to exoneration because the damage to the bridge was not a foreseeable consequence of its negligent mooring of the two vessels. The Fifth Circuit rejected Signal’s argument:

The critical question in this case is whether the allision with the Interstate [*20]  10 bridge was a harm of the general sort to an entity of a general class that a reasonably thoughtful person might have anticipated to result from Signal’s negligent mooring of the MISS TIFF and the JACK KING in light of the anticipated natural forces wrought by Hurricane Katrina. As the question makes clear, our analysis does not focus on the particular allision site, but the general risk of allision; it does not focus on MDOT, but on the class of property owners in the paths available to the runaway barges.

Id. at 492. The court cautioned: “The test of foreseeability is not measured against normal conditions, but those that were anticipated or reasonably should have been anticipated.” Id. at 493. Looking at the facts of the case, the court concluded that “the approaching hurricane, the expected height and predicted movement of the storm surge, and the topology of the Pascagoula River basin gave rise to the need to moor the barges and made this allision a foreseeable consequence of negligence in that mooring.” Id.

Here, the court concludes that Aramark breached its duty of reasonable care when it allowed the Prescott Party to leave the morning of April 25, 2009. The court bases this conclusion on the following: [*21]

  1. The weather forecasts and wind advisories

As detailed above, the forecast at 3:18 in the afternoon on April 24 for Zone 5 showed that a wind advisory was in effect from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on April 25. Then, around 3 a.m., April 25, the National Weather Service issued wind advisories for both Zone 5 and Zone 21. Yet Ms. Ambrosius denied having seen or heard any forecast that contained that information. According to Ms. Ambrosius, the first she was aware of the wind advisory was when she heard the information on Channel 16 around 10 a.m. the morning of the 25th. But throughout Ms. Ambrosius’ testimony, as the court has noted above, her recounting of the events of April 24 and 25 differed significantly from other evidence. For that reason, the court concludes that Ms. Ambrosius did not have an accurate memory about those events and the court cannot rely on her testimony.

Aramark, primarily Ms. Ambrosius, had a duty to be advised of the current weather forecasts and wind advisories before allowing any party to leave the marina in an Aramark power boat. This is particularly true because, as Aramark knew, in the spring, the weather changed constantly. Phyllis Coon testified that in the spring, [*22]  shutting down rentals was considered almost on “an hourly basis” because of the erratic weather. (March 4 Tr. at 337 (Dkt. No. 310).) And “[s]pringtime is always windy on the lake.” (Dep. of Donald Scott Bergantz at 107.)

Moreover, the water could be very cold in April which could lead to hypothermia if boat passengers were in the water.

  1. Boat 647

The boat owner’s manual cautioned that when wind speeds reached 31 miles an hour, only experienced operators might be able to safely operate the boat. Yet Aramark rented to anyone eighteen years or older, with a valid driver’s license, without regard to that person’s previous boating experience.

Because Boat 647’s length exceeded twenty feet, the boat did not have positive flotation and could not remain afloat when filled with water.

The court, when it considers these facts, concludes that Aramark had frequently in the past recognized that high winds could be dangerous to boaters. Aramark should have been aware, if it was not, that high winds were forecast for April 25, 2009. And it was foreseeable to Aramark that if those who had rented Baja 202 Islanders for a trip on Lake Powell the morning of April 25, 2009, were allowed to depart, the boats could sink [*23]  because of the high winds. It was further foreseeable to Aramark that if the boats sank, particularly in the cold April water, the passengers could suffer injury and even death. Aramark breached that duty when it allowed the Prescott Party to leave.

  1. Causation

Aramark’s negligence is actionable only if its action was the legal cause of the Claimants’ injuries, which is “something more than ‘but for’ causation, and the negligence must be a ‘substantial factor’ in the injury.'” Donaghey v. Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., 974 F.2d 646, 649 (5th Cir. 1992), quoting Thomas v. Express Boat Co., Inc., 759 F.2d 444, 448 (5th Cir. 1985).

Here, the court concludes that Aramark’s failure to stop the Prescott Party from leaving was a substantial factor in the sinking of Boat 647 and the resulting harm. Even though Aramark argues that Boat 647 sank because of the actions of the Prescott Party, the court concludes that the failure to stop the boat from leaving was a substantial factor in the sinking of the boat.

In Thomas v. Express Boat Co., Inc., 759 F.2d 444 (5th Cir. 1985), Lance Thomas, a crewman aboard a rig supply boat, sued the operator of the boat, Express Boat, for injuries he sustained while mooring the rig supply boat to an offshore drilling rig. The rig was owned and operated by Penrod Drilling Company (Penrod). The lower court decided that Penrod was negligent because as part of the mooring [*24]  procedure, it had presented a frayed line to the rig supply boat. (A jury had previously found that Express Boat was negligent and returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Thomas.) The court allocated one-third of the responsibility to Penrod. On appeal, Penrod (and Mr. Thomas, whose damage award was effectively reduced by the allocation of fault) argued that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Penrod’s negligence was a legal cause of Mr. Thomas’ injuries. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision holding that Penrod’s negligence in presenting the frayed rope was more than “but for” causation of Mr. Thomas’ injury and was a “substantial factor in the injury.” Id. at 448. In response to appellants’ argument that the captain of the rig supply boat was negligent and caused the injury because he made the decision to bring in the frayed line, the court stated: “The danger in sending a frayed line to a vessel in such poor weather was certainly foreseeable. Although [Captain] Peterson also may have been negligent in deciding to bring in the line, this does [not] excuse Penrod’s negligence.” Id. The court noted that, “because Penrod’s negligence [in presenting the frayed rope] made [Captain [*25]  Peterson’s] decision necessary, the district court properly concluded that Penrod bears some responsibility for the accident.” Id.

Here, similar to the facts in Thomas, as this order details above, the danger of allowing the Prescott Party to depart the morning of April 25, 2009, certainly was foreseeable to Aramark.4 Regardless of whether the members of the Prescott Party made wrong choices while on the boat, the harm was, at least in part, the result of Aramark’s initial negligence and so Aramark “bears some responsibility for the accident.” Id.

4 See In re: Signal Int’l, LLC, 579 F.3d 478 (5th Cir. 2009), for a discussion of the role of foreseeability in both duty and causation: “We have historically considered foreseeability relevant to both the duty and proximate cause determinations.” Id. at 490 n.12 (citations omitted).

Whether the Prescott Party’s actions contributed to the loss must be resolved in another proceeding.

  1. PRIVITY

Because Claimants have proven negligence, the burden shifts to Aramark to show that it did not have knowledge of the acts of negligence and was not in privity with the negligent actor. Farrell Lines, Inc. v. Jones, 530 F.2d 7, 10 (5th Cir. 1976). “When a corporation owns the vessel, the test is whether culpable participation or neglect of duty can be attributed to an officer, managing [*26]  agent, supervisor, or other high-level employee of the corporation.” Carr v. PMS Fishing Corp., 191 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1999) (citations omitted).

Aramark has not met its burden. The testimony, including that of the general manager, Karen Ambrosius, was clear that the general manager had the discretion and authority to close boat rentals. In fact, it was Ms. Ambrosius who belatedly made the decision to close rentals on April 25, 2009.

III. CONCLUSION

The court denies Aramark’s petition to exonerate it or limit its liability. The court does not make any findings or reach any other conclusion regarding the other allegations of negligence asserted by the Claimants. It also makes no findings or conclusions concerning whether anyone in the Prescott Party was also negligent. These questions are to be resolved in another proceeding. The court ORDERS that all pending motions are denied as moot.

DATED this 29th day of August, 2014.

BY THE COURT:

/s/ Tena Campbell

TENA CAMPBELL

U.S. District Court Judge

 


Admiralty Law Limitation of Liability Act

TITLE 46. SHIPPING

SUBTITLE III. MARITIME LIABILITY

CHAPTER 305. EXONERATION AND LIMITATION OF LIABILITY

Go to the United States Code Service Archive Directory

46 USCS § 30505

  • 30505. General limit of liability

(a) In general. Except as provided in section 30506 of this title [46 USCS § 30506], the liability of the owner of a vessel for any claim, debt, or liability described in subsection (b) shall not exceed the value of the vessel and pending freight. If the vessel has more than one owner, the proportionate share of the liability of any one owner shall not exceed that owner’s proportionate interest in the vessel and pending freight.

(b) Claims subject to limitation. Unless otherwise excluded by law, claims, debts, and liabilities subject to limitation under subsection (a) are those arising from any embezzlement, loss, or destruction of any property, goods, or merchandise shipped or put on board the vessel, any loss, damage, or injury by collision, or any act, matter, or thing, loss, damage, or forfeiture, done, occasioned, or incurred, without the privity or knowledge of the owner.

(c) Wages. Subsection (a) does not apply to a claim for wages.


Admiralty law did not stop a release from barring a claim for negligence for a parasailing injury.

Aramark sued for parasailing accident when it booked the trip with an “affiliate.”

Cobb v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 933 F. Supp. 2d 1295; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20139; 2013 AMC 2563

State: Nevada, United States District Court for the District of Nevada

Plaintiff: Jaclyn Cobb

Defendant: Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC

Plaintiff Claims: Negligence

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2013

The plaintiff signed up to go parasailing on Lake Tahoe with Zephyr Cove Resort. Zephyr Cove Resort is described by the court as being an “affiliate of the defendant Aramark. Aramark is well known as a large concessionaire operating hotel and services in National Parks.

After signing up the plaintiff signed a release (waiver). The plaintiff went parasailing and was sailing when the weather turned bad. She was being reeled back to the boat when she struck her knee causing injury.

The plaintiff filed this claim against Aramark. (It is not stated what the relationship is between Aramark and Zephyr Cove Resort or why the plaintiff did not sue Zephyr Cove Resort.)

The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which the court granted with this opinion.

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

Most legal decisions based where a motion for summary judgment is filed to review the requirements on what must be proved by the defendant (generally), for the motion to be granted. Generally, that occupies one to five paragraphs in the order. Most are either too succinct to explain the process or too wordy to make deciphering the process worth the effort. This court did a great job of explaining what the defendant must prove to succeed in its motion for summary judgment. The court then reviewed what the plaintiff must do to rebut the motion for summary judgment.

The party filing a motion for summary judgment must argue the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the opposing party when applied to the law show there is no genuine issue of material fact. Those facts must show that no reasonable trier of fact (a jury normally), could find any other way.

The moving party bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for its motion, along with evidence showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. On those issues for which it bears the burden of proof, the moving party must make a showing that is “sufficient for the court to hold that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than for the moving party.

To rebut the motion for summary judgment the non-moving party must point to facts in the record which so issues. The record is the evidence, depositions, responses to interrogatories and information that met the rules of evidence to be presented to the court.

To successfully rebut a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must point to facts supported by the record which demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact.

If a reasonable mind could see the facts in a different way, then a motion for summary judgment is not appropriate. The issues must go to trial and be presented to a jury. The evidence presented in the motion must be genuine that means a reasonable jury can only see the evidence as pointing in one direction, saying one thing. The evidence that is not proved must be more than a scintilla; it must show there is a real dispute in how the facts can be seen.

Where reasonable minds could differ on the material facts at issue, summary judgment is not appropriate. A dispute regarding a material fact is considered genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient to establish a genuine dispute; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.

Consequently, when a court grants a motion for summary judgment, the evidence presented is such the court can see that evidence only proving one view of the issue and there is no other evidence that refutes that evidence sufficient to change the mind, or even make the person waiver in his or her thoughts on how the evidence is viewed.

In this case, the court found that admiralty law did apply in this case. Admiralty law is federal law that controls the seas or waters moving between two states. Lake Tahoe has shores on both Nevada and California so admiralty law was the law to be applied to the case.

The action giving rise to the admiralty law claim must be based on maritime activity. The Supreme Court and other federal courts have a very broad definition of maritime activity, and paragliding has been found to be a maritime activity.

An action falls within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts under 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) when: (1) the underlying tort occurred on navigable waters; and (2) the actions giving rise to the tort claim bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.

Where, as here, a body of water forms a border between two states and is capable of supporting maritime commerce, it is considered navigable for the purpose of establishing admiralty jurisdiction. Second, parasailing bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities sufficient to establish admiralty jurisdiction. (“Careful and safe navigation of vessels in navigable waters have always been a fundamental admiralty concern. Navigation is an essential component in the parasailing activity.”)

Assumption of the risk is not a defense that can be used in a case covered by admiralty law. However, release is a valid defense.

In her opposition, Cobb argues that the liability waiver is unenforceable because under federal maritime law assumption of the risk is not a valid defense. Cobb is correct that assumption of the risk is not an available defense in maritime cases involving personal injury. However, this does not preclude Aramark from raising the defense of express waiver in this case. Waiver and assumption of the risk are two distinct affirmative defenses and are addressed separately under federal admiralty law.

Under Admiralty law, a release must meet a two-part test.

First, Cobb concedes that she knowingly and voluntarily signed the liability waiver. Second, the court finds that the express waiver in this action is clear and unambiguous as it contains specific language releasing Zephyr and its affiliates, including defendant Aramark, for injuries sustained in carrying out the parasailing activities as a result of Zephyr’s negligence

An unambiguous waiver is one that specifically bars the claims of the plaintiff and protects all the defendants. “A waiver is clear and unambiguous if it specifically bars the plaintiff’s negligence claim and explicitly exonerates all defendants in the lawsuit.”

The court then specifically pointed out that the injury the plaintiff is complaining of was specifically listed in the release. “Further, the very injuries Cobb is suing for are specifically precluded by the waiver including “drowning, sprained or broken bones.

Nor does the release violate public policy. Voluntary recreational activities do not violate public policy under admiralty law.

Third, the underlying express waiver is not inconsistent with public policy because waivers of liability on navigable waters do not contravene federal public policy.

The waiver is also not an adhesion contract because again, it is for a voluntary recreational activity.

Finally, the court finds that the express waiver signed by Cobb is not an adhesion contract because it concerns a voluntary recreational activity. Under federal admiralty law, liability waivers for recreational sporting activities like parasailing are not contracts of adhesion because they are not essential services.

Finding that Admiralty law was the law to be applied, finding that admiralty law allowed the use of a release to stop claims for negligence and finding the release in this matter was valid, the court granted the defendants motion for summary judgment.

Therefore, the court finds that the underlying pre-accident waiver is valid and enforceable and absolves the defendant Aramark of any liability arising from the recreational parasailing activity. Accordingly, the court shall grant Aramark’s motion for summary judgment.

So Now What? 

This is another decision that you should keep handy if your recreational activity could be viewed as subject to admiralty law. Scuba diving, whitewater rafting, and as here parasailing, dependent on the location of the activity, can all be subject to admiralty law.

The decision is also good because its explanation of the law is simple and succinct. You want nothing better than to point to a sentence in a case to support your position that is easy to read and easily understood; no matter how intelligent the judges and attorneys are that may be reading it.

Of major importance for everyone is the court specifically pointed out that the injury the plaintiff was complaining about was one the release specifically pointed out as one that could occur in the release.

Whenever those two issues occur, the injury the plaintiff received was in writing in the release courts point it out. That should be a major flag to anyone writing a release that you need to list the risks of the activity in your release. You must list the major accidents that can occur like death and the common accidents that can occur, like sprains and strains for the activity, you are running.

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Cobb v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 933 F. Supp. 2d 1295; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20139; 2013 AMC 2563

Cobb v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 933 F. Supp. 2d 1295; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20139; 2013 AMC 2563

Jaclyn Cobb, Plaintiff, v. Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, Defendant.

3:11-cv-0840-LRH-WGC

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEVADA

933 F. Supp. 2d 1295; 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20139; 2013 AMC 2563

February 13, 2013, Decided

February 14, 2013, Filed

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: As Amended March 18, 2013.

COUNSEL: [**1] For Jaclyn Cobb, Plaintiff: Angela D. Bullentini, Charles M Kilpatrick, Kilpatrick, Johnston & Adler, Carson City, NV.

For Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, Defendant: Rachel K McLendon-Kent, Graeme A. Reid, Bauman Loewe Witt & Maxwell, Reno, NV; Terence Cox, Cox, Wootton, Griffin, Hansen & Poulos, LLP, San Francisco, CA.

JUDGES: LARRY R. HICKS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

OPINION BY: LARRY R. HICKS

OPINION

[*1296] AMENDED ORDER

Before the court is defendant Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC’s (“Aramark”) motion for summary judgment. Doc. #28. 1 Plaintiff Jaclyn Cobb (“Cobb”) filed an opposition (Doc. #33) to which Aramark replied (Doc. #38). This Order amends Order #39. 2

1 Refers to the court’s docket number.

2 This Order is identical to Order #39, but with needed edits for punctuation and citation accuracy.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff Cobb is seeking recovery for a knee injury allegedly sustained while parasailing with an affiliate of defendant Aramark.

On June 15, 2010, Cobb paid to go parasailing on Lake Tahoe through an operation ran by Zephyr Cove Resort (“Zephyr”). Before going on the boat for parasailing, Cobb signed a waiver of liability entitled Acknowledgment and Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Liability (“Waiver”). The waiver stated in relevant part:

In consideration of my being allowed to participate in the parasailing [**2] activities operated and conducted by [Zephyr], I hereby RELEASE and WAIVE . . . any and all claims that I may have . . . against [Zephyr], and any of [its] affiliates . . . I specifically RELEASE [Zephyr], and any of [its] affiliates . . . from . . . all claims for . . . injury or death to persons caused by negligence of any one of them arising out of my participation in the parasailing activities. I AGREE NOT TO SUE . . . the aforementioned parties for any injuries or damages that I might hereby receive from my participation in the parasailing activities, whether or not such injury, loss or damage results from the aforementioned [*1297] parties’ negligence or from any other cause.

Doc. #28, Exhibit A.

After signing the waiver, Cobb boarded the parasailing vessel and, along with another family member, went parasailing in a tandem harness. At some point during the trip, adverse weather conditions, including high winds, caused the parasailing trip to be called short. As she was being reeled back into the boat Cobb struck her knee on the boat causing significant injury.

Subsequently, Cobb filed a complaint for negligence against Aramark. Doc. #1, Exhibit A. Thereafter, Aramark filed the present motion [**3] for summary judgment contending that Cobb expressly waived her right to sue. Doc. #28.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate only when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In assessing a motion for summary judgment, the evidence, together with all inferences that can reasonably be drawn therefrom, must be read in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S. Ct. 1348, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986); County of Tuolumne v. Sonora Cmty. Hosp., 236 F.3d 1148, 1154 (9th Cir. 2001).

The moving party bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for its motion, along with evidence showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). On those issues for which it bears the burden of proof, the moving party must make a showing that is “sufficient for the court to hold that no reasonable trier of fact could find other than for the moving party.” [**4] Calderone v. United States, 799 F.2d 254, 259 (6th Cir. 1986); see also Idema v. Dreamworks, Inc., 162 F. Supp. 2d 1129, 1141 (C.D. Cal. 2001).

To successfully rebut a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must point to facts supported by the record which demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact. Reese v. Jefferson Sch. Dist. No. 14J, 208 F.3d 736 (9th Cir. 2000). A “material fact” is a fact “that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Where reasonable minds could differ on the material facts at issue, summary judgment is not appropriate. See v. Durang, 711 F.2d 141, 143 (9th Cir. 1983). A dispute regarding a material fact is considered genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248. The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient to establish a genuine dispute; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. See id. at 252.

III. Discussion

A. Applicable Law

In its motion, Aramark argues that this action, and thereby [**5] the express waiver, is governed by federal admiralty law. See Doc. #28. An action falls within the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts under 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1) when: (1) the underlying tort occurred on navigable waters; and (2) the actions giving rise to the tort claim bear a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity. Charnis v. Watersport Pro, LLC, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *5-6 [*1298] (D. Nev. 2009) (citing Sisson v. Ruby, 497 U.S. 358, 365-66, 110 S. Ct. 2892, 111 L. Ed. 2d 292 (1990)).

The court has reviewed the documents and pleadings on file in this matter and finds that this action falls within the court’s exercise of admiralty jurisdiction. First, the alleged injury occurred on Lake Tahoe, a navigable waterway that lies within the borders of Nevada and California. Where, as here, a body of water forms a border between two states and is capable of supporting maritime commerce, it is considered navigable for the purpose of establishing admiralty jurisdiction. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *6. Second, parasailing bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities sufficient to establish admiralty jurisdiction. See e.g., In the Matter of Skyrider, 1990 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16510, *10 (D. Haw. 1990) [**6] (“Careful and safe navigation of vessels in navigable waters have always been a fundamental admiralty concern. Navigation is an essential component in the parasailing activity.”); UFO Chuting of Hawaii Inc. v. Smith, 508 F.3d 1189, 1193 (9th Cir. 2007) (holding that parasailing is an activity bearing a significant relationship to traditional maritime activities); Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *6 (“The operation of recreational boats, including pulling skiers or wakeboarders, bears a significant relationship to traditional maritime activity.”). Therefore, this action arises under the court’s admiralty jurisdiction and, as such, the court must apply substantive federal admiralty law to this action. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *6 (“With admiralty jurisdiction comes the application of substantive admiralty law.”) (citing E. River S.S. Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S 858, 864, 106 S. Ct. 2295, 90 L. Ed. 2d 865 (1986)).

B. Assumption of the Risk

In her opposition, Cobb argues that the liability waiver is unenforceable because under federal maritime law assumption of the risk is not a valid defense. Cobb is correct that assumption of the risk is not an available defense in maritime cases involving [**7] personal injury. See e.g., De Sole v. United States, 947 F.2d 1169 (4th Cir. 1991); Skidmore v. Grueninger, 506 F.2d 716 (5th Cir. 1975). However, this does not preclude Aramark from raising the defense of express waiver in this case. Waiver and assumption of the risk are two distinct affirmative defenses and are addressed separately under federal admiralty law. See Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *10-11. Therefore, Aramark may raise the affirmative defense of express waiver in this action.

C. Express Waiver

In its motion, Aramark argues that the signed express waiver precludes the present action. See Doc. #28. Specifically, Aramark argues that under federal maritime law, pre-accident liability waivers are enforceable and may properly dispose of this action on summary judgment.

Under federal admiralty law, owners of recreational vessels may, through written waivers, disclaim liability for their own negligence. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *11. A pre-accident waiver absolves a defendant of liability for recreational activities on navigable waters if the exculpatory clause is (1) clear and unambiguous; (2) is not inconsistent with public policy; and (3) is not an adhesion contract. [**8] Id. at 13.

The court has reviewed the documents and pleadings on file in this matter and finds that the signed waiver of liability is [*1299] enforceable. First, Cobb concedes that she knowingly and voluntarily signed the liability waiver. See Doc. #33. Second, the court finds that the express waiver in this action is clear and unambiguous as it contains specific language releasing Zephyr and its affiliates, including defendant Aramark, for injuries sustained in carrying out the parasailing activities as a result of Zephyr’s negligence.

A waiver is clear and unambiguous if it specifically bars the plaintiff’s negligence claim and explicitly exonerates all defendants in the lawsuit. See Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022. Here, the waiver specifically bars plaintiff from suing for her injuries. Doc. #28, Exhibit A (“I AGREE NOT TO SUE . . . the aforementioned parties for any injuries or damages that I might hereby receive from my participation in the parasailing activities, whether or not such injury, loss or damage results from the aforementioned parties’ negligence or from any other cause.”). Further, the very injuries Cobb is suing for are specifically precluded by the waiver including “drowning, [**9] sprained or broken bones.” Doc. #28, Exhibit A. Therefore, the court finds that the express waiver is sufficiently clear and unambiguous to cover Cobb’s injuries sustained while parasailing.

Third, the underlying express waiver is not inconsistent with public policy because waivers of liability on navigable waters do not contravene federal public policy. Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *13-14; In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123786, *21 (C.D. Utah 2012) (holding that maritime exculpatory clauses are enforceable when a party clearly absolves itself from liability for its own negligence).

Finally, the court finds that the express waiver signed by Cobb is not an adhesion contract because it concerns a voluntary recreational activity. Under federal admiralty law, liability waivers for recreational sporting activities like parasailing are not contracts of adhesion because they are not essential services. See e.g., Charnis, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76022, *14-15; In re Aramark, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123789, *15. Therefore, the court finds that the underlying pre-accident waiver is valid and enforceable and absolves defendant Aramark of any liability [**10] arising from the recreational parasailing activity. Accordingly, the court shall grant Aramark’s motion for summary judgment.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that defendant’s motion for summary judgment (Doc. #28) is GRANTED. The clerk of court shall enter judgment in favor of defendant Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC and against plaintiff Jaclyn Cobb.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

DATED this 18th day of March, 2013.

/s/ Larry R. Hicks

LARRY R. HICKS

UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE


Electronic release upheld in Florida federal court for surfing on a cruise ship

Johnson v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28128; 2011 AMC 1171

Electronic releases are slowly gathering judicial precedent, if you can save paper and go electronic.

English: The Flowrider aboard the Royal Caribb...

English: The Flowrider aboard the Royal Caribbean cruiseliner Freedom of the Seas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The defendant Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd had a ship, the Oasis of the Seas which had a FlowRider on it. A FlowRider is a wakeboard surfing device/pool/wave. The FlowRider was an amusement that was not part of the fees charged for the cruise, but required a separate sign up and fee payment by people wanting to ride the device.

The plaintiff rode the FlowRider for approximately 45 minutes, falling several times. On her last fall, she hit the rear wall and fractured her ankle. Prior to her injury, she had allegedly watched a safety video which was on the ship’s cabin TVs. She also watched  other riders ride.

To ride the FlowRider the plaintiff had to read and sign an electronic release. The release was three pages long and designed so the readers had to scroll through all three of the pages before it could be signed. The plaintiff scrolled through all three pages and electronically signed the release. The plaintiff later argued she thought she was signing a room charge. (Room charges are three pages long?)

The plaintiff argued that admiralty law applied, which would prevent the use of the release and that the release was void based on equitable grounds. The decision was later overturned because the court found the admiralty statute was vague and the issue on whether the release worked in this case was an issue that should be litigated.

So?

The admiralty law argument states that if admiralty law applies, releases cannot be used to defeat a claim. The legal relationship is similar to the common carrier‘s duty to protect passengers, because the control of the transportation is outside of the ability of the passenger to control, the common carrier owes the highest degree of care to the passengers. You are not driving; you are a passenger. You can’t slow down, turn or hit the break from the rear of the cabin.

For admiralty law to apply it must meet a two-prong test. The incident causing the harm:

(1)             must have a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce, and

(2)            the activity must bear a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.

The judge quickly denied that argument. He found that the cruise line industry would not be disrupted because of FlowRider injuries in the future, and the activity is purely recreational and has no relationship to navigation, piloting or shipping: “…as the FlowRider can hardly be considered essential functions of a common carrier…”

The court then looked at whether the release was valid on equitable grounds. The release used bold language to point out the different important sections. The bold language also indicated the nature and purpose of the document. One page explained the potential risks associated with the activity.

The court found it irrelevant that the plaintiff had not been provided a hard copy of the release and found the plaintiff’s attempt to characterize the release as a room charge as a failure to read the language “clearly presented to her.”

So Now What?

English: Royal Caribbean International's, &quo...

Royal Caribbean International’s, “MS Oasis of the Seas” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you do operate in a legal environment where all or part of your activities may be held to a higher standard of care such as admiralty law or as a common carrier, you can use a release to eliminate claims for associated or side line activities. To do so you will need to identify the actual nature of the activity and why it is not associated with the higher degree of care needed by the other part of the activity.

What also proved instrumental to the court was the video which was available to everyone on the ship and which the plaintiff said she had watched when she signed the release. It is difficult to argue you did not understand the risk, when you agreed to watch a video which explained the exact risk which you are claiming is the cause of your injury.

The Waiver further provides that the passenger agrees not to use the FlowRider until she has watched a safety video. At the time of the alleged incident, the FlowRider safety video was in circulation on the stateroom channel, which is available to all passengers on their cabin TVs.

Another factor the court found important was the fact that the release could not be signed without scrolling through all three of the electronic pages.

The Waiver is three pages long and is designed so that passengers must scroll through all of its language before execution; otherwise it is simply impossible to execute the Waiver.

The issue that the release was electronic was never brought up.

Also of importance and pointed out by the court several times was the fact the plaintiff had watched other riders on the FlowRider and had watched them fall as well as having ridden the FlowRider for 40 minutes before suffering her only injury. It is difficult to argue you did not assume the risk when you clearly saw then experienced the risk.

Even though the release was held effective to stop the suit, the judge pointed out the assumption of risk issues and the fact the injury the plaintiff claimed was pointed out both in the wavier and in the video.

·        Electronic Releases are accepted and used.

·        Include the risks in your release as well as the necessary legal language

·        Make sure the important sections are not hidden, but specifically pointed out to the participant.

·        If you can, and you should, have the participant watch a video of the risks and acknowledge that they watched the video in the release.

·        Be able to prove other issues or facts that support the fact the participant knew and understood the risks of the activity.

However this decision was overturned in Johnson v. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd, 449 Fed. Appx. 846; 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 25240 because of the lack of clarity in the US Admiralty Statutes. The basis for overturning the decision was:

(1) the waiver was clearly a contract with a provision that limited the liability of the owner for personal injury or death caused by the negligence or fault of the owner or the owner’s employees or agents,
(2) the cruise ship owner undoubtedly was the owner of a vessel transporting passengers between a port in the United States and a port in a foreign country, and
(3) the statute contained no exceptions regarding the type of activity in which the passenger is partaking when the injury occurs nor where the particular provision is found.

The court did not overturn the issue of whether the electronic part of the waiver was at issue.

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