Church was not liable for injuries on a canoe trip because the church did not control the land along the river.Posted: July 6, 2015
There can be no negligence if there is no duty; no control means no duty.
State: Florida, Court of Appeal of Florida, First District
Plaintiff: John Clark
Defendant: Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company and Orange Park Assembly of God
Plaintiff Claims: duty to warn of the shallowness of the water in the beach area, failed to determine in advance the safe and unsafe areas to swim along the St. Mary’s River, and failed to point out proper sites for swimming and diving by the trip members, failed to adequately supervise the canoeing trip
Defendant Defenses: No duty
Holding: for the defendant
This is a simple and sad case. A church organized a canoe trip through a livery. One of the obvious benefits of a summer canoe trip was swimming and playing in the water. The plaintiff and his friend in their canoe got to a beach first, beached their canoe and dove into the water.
The friend dove into the water first, and the plaintiff followed in the same direction and dove second. The plaintiff’s dive was different, not a shallow dive. He broke his neck and rendered himself a quadriplegic.
There were no obstructions in the water where the accident occurred and the 21-year-old plaintiff was knowledgeable about water sports and activities.
The plaintiff sued the church and the church’s insurance company. The trial court dismissed the complaint. The canoe livery was not part of this suit, and it is unknown if they were ever defendants. This appeal followed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The basics of the plaintiff’s claims were the defendant church organized the trip. Therefore, they were responsible of all aspects of the trip. That control allegedly included the land along the trip as well as the participants. The plaintiff was 21 and argued the church was in control of him, even though he acted without the church’s knowledge or consent and before the “church” through an assistant minister arrived on the scene.
The court first went through the steps under Florida’s law to determine the requirements to dismiss a case. Motions to dismiss are rarely granted.
In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a negligence action, the defendant must show either no negligence on his part proximately resulting in injury to the plaintiff, or that the plaintiff’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of his injury.
Negligence requires more than the mere occurrence of an accident.
The plaintiff argued that the defendant church was in control of the trip, acting as a guide for the trip and by allowing he to access the beach was liable as a landowner for the beach. The plaintiff argued defendant church constructively possessed the beach.
The court did not accept this argument because the plaintiff arrived at the beach first and before the leader of the trip; the assistant minister who was a paid employee, arrived minutes later. Upon the “church’s” arrival no one tried to exercise defacto control over the beach or the activity which argued was control over the beach.
The next argument was the church was liable for not making sure the beach was safe. However, the plaintiff found the beach and dove without the church’s permission. On top of that, there were not obstructions in the river, which would make the beach or river unsafe.
The court also looked at the age of the plaintiff. The plaintiff “possessed sufficient maturity to appreciate the danger, and was not in a dependency relationship with the appellee church.”
Another argument was the one that created concern and interest. “Appellant also maintains that the church assumed a duty of due care by voluntarily acting as a “tour guide” in organizing and conducting the canoeing trip upon which appellant was injured…”
A prior case Florida case on appeal had held a tour service liable for the accident that occurred in a museum because they had the ability to check out where the tour was going. This legal theory is based on “an action undertaken for the benefit of another, even if performed gratuitously, must be performed in accordance with the duty to exercise due care.”
The court held that the tour company was a common carrier in the other decision, and it did not apply in this case because the circumstances did not create a duty on the part of the church. The liability of a common carrier is the highest owed to a party. Common carriers are usually defined as airlines, trains those transportation services where the customer has no ability to protect themselves or control their situation. The court also found:
Even assuming, arguendo, that the church owed a duty of adequate supervision to appellant, the breach of which would render it liable for ordinary negligence, appellant can be barred from recovery if his own action in diving into the shallow water was the sole proximate cause of his accident.
This statement sounds like an assumption of the risk argument, but is actually a duty statement. There is no liability, unless there is a duty. There cannot be a duty when one is acting on one’s own. “A plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for loss or injury caused by the negligence of another only when the plaintiff’s negligence is the sole legal cause of the damage.”
So Now What?
Sad when a young man spends the rest of his live in a wheel chair. However, the actions that caused his injuries were solely those of his own doing.
The argument that you are a guide when you undertake to organize a trip was interesting. A lot of this would hinge on how you are accomplishing this, what you were saying to get the trip put together. It is important when creating outings or trips like this to identify the responsibilities of the parties. Identify in advance, who is responsible for what. You should always identify that adults are always responsible for themselves.
That division of responsibility is best explained in writing and accepted in writing by the customer. That document is normally called a release.
The way you outline the responsibilities you or the organization you represent when you start organizing a trip will create the duties you will owe. The younger the people on the trip, (kids), and the more the people rely on your statements, the greater the chance you will be held to a duty. If you imply you are creating a duty, then you have created a duty and you will be liable for breaching that duty.
The bigger issue is the assigning of a greater duty by the courts based upon the type of tour being offered. You need to identify in advance that your actions in moving your customers from one location to the activity are done as part of the activity, not as a common carrier. Your liability in the transportation is incidental to the activity, or you may be held to a higher standard of care for all parts of the activity.
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Clark, v. Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company, 465 So. 2d 552; 1985 Fla. App. LEXIS 12832; 10 Fla. L. Weekly 596Posted: June 26, 2015
John Clark, Appellant, v. Lumbermans Mutual Insurance Company and Orange Park Assembly of God, Appellees
Court of Appeal of Florida, First District
465 So. 2d 552; 1985 Fla. App. LEXIS 12832; 10 Fla. L. Weekly 596
March 7, 1985
COUNSEL: Adam H. Lawrence of Lawrence & Daniels, Miami; and Brent M. Turbow, Jacksonville, for Appellant.
Charles Cook Howell, III of Howell, Liles, Braddock & Milton, Jacksonville, for Appellee.
JUDGES: Smith, L., J. Mills and Nimmons, JJ., concur.
OPINION BY: SMITH
[*553] John Clark, plaintiff below, appeals a final summary judgment in favor of the appellees in this negligence action. After an examination of the whole record, we conclude that no interpretation of the undisputed material facts would support a finding of liability for negligence on the part of the appellee Orange Park Assembly of God (hereinafter “church”). We affirm.
The following facts, taken from depositions filed in this cause, are germane to this appeal. Appellant suffered a broken neck and was rendered a quadriplegic during a diving accident on the St. Mary’s River, located in Nassau County, Florida. The accident occurred during a canoe trip and picnic sponsored, planned and conducted by the appellee church. The church had hired Mr. Gary Hines to be its “minister of youth.” Hines, [**2] a paid, full-time employee of the church, was to direct and coordinate the activities of the church’s youthful members. The trip in question took place June 13, 1981. Its logistics were planned and coordinated by Hines. Approximately 40 to 50 people, including appellant, ultimately participated in the trip. Appellant, a high school graduate, was twenty-one years of age at the time of his injury. He was, in his own words, in excellent health, a good swimmer who was familiar with various water sports.
On the day of appellant’s accident, trip members were transported by church bus and van to a canoe rental establishment located on the St. Mary’s River called the Canoe Outpost. Hines did not attempt extensive instructions to trip members regarding canoe operation or the physical characteristics of the river they were about to traverse. Trip members were instructed by Hines that suitable beaches for swimming existed on the river; however, Hines acknowledged that he had not made inquiries prior to the trip as to the location or suitability of any of the river’s beaches.
During the trip, appellant and a canoeing companion, Lee Brannen, sighted what they thought was a suitable place [**3] for swimming, and beached their canoes. Brannen testified that he ran out into the water approximately three steps and then executed a shallow, racing-type dive into the water, which was approximately chest deep on Brannen, who was six feet one inch tall. Brannen testified he felt it would be “crazy” to attempt a “deep dive,” as he had not yet ascertained the exact depth of the water. Appellant then attempted to execute a similar dive, following what both he and Brannen testified was essentially the same path Brannen had taken in making his dive. Both testified that appellant’s dive differed from Brannen’s. Brannen testified that appellant had not run as far into the water as Brannen had, and that appellant jumped somewhat higher prior to the dive in a manner Brannen characterized as a “piking” of appellant’s body, with the result that appellant’s head and arms preceded the rest of his body into the water. Unfortunately, the result of appellant’s attempted dive was a broken neck and consequent paralysis. The record is unclear as to what, exactly, caused appellant’s injuries, since appellant was unable to state categorically that he hit his head on the river bottom as a result [**4] of his dive. However, all deponents testified that the river bottom area where appellant dove was clear of obstructions.
Appellant instituted the pending action alleging, among other things, that the appellee church had violated its duty to warn of the shallowness of the water in the beach area, where appellant had attempted his dive, failed to determine in advance the safe and unsafe areas to swim along the [*554] St. Mary’s River, and failed to point out proper sites for swimming and diving by the trip members. Appellant also alleged that the church had failed to adequately supervise the canoeing trip.
Appellees moved for summary judgment, asserting that the church breached no legal duty owed the appellant; that appellant had actual knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition of the beach where his accident occurred; and that appellant’s actions constituted the sole proximate cause of his injury. The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, finding that the beach area where appellant’s accident occurred contained no latent or unknown dangers; that the appellee church did not breach any legal duty owed the appellant; and that appellant’s actions were the [**5] sole proximate cause of his injury. This appeal followed.
We are governed by certain well known principles applicable in negligence actions. [HN1] Issues of negligence and probable cause will normally be answerable only by a jury, and not by motion for summary judgment, unless the facts adduced “point to but one possible conclusion.” Cassel v. Price, 396 So.2d 258, 260 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981) (citations omitted), rev. den. mem., 407 So.2d 1102 (Fla. 1981). In order to prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a negligence action, the defendant must show either no negligence on his part proximately resulting in injury to the plaintiff, or that the plaintiff’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of his injury. Goode v. Walt Disney World Co., 425 So.2d 1151, 1154 (Fla. 5th DCA 1982), rev. den. mem., 436 So.2d 101 (Fla. 1983). However, as often stated, “the mere occurrence of an accident does not give rise to an inference of negligence, and is not sufficient for a finding of negligence on the part of anyone.” Cassel v. Price, supra, at 264 (citations omitted). Judged by these standards, we find that the trial court correctly granted appellees’ motion for summary judgment.
[**6] Initially, we find without merit appellant’s attempt to affix liability based upon breach of a duty of due care by the church as a “possessor” or “occupier” of land. Appellant contends that the church, by allowing appellant and other members of the trip to utilize the beach where appellant was injured, constructively “possessed” this portion of the beach area, citing Arias v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, 426 So.2d 1136 (Fla. 1st DCA 1983). We disagree. In Arias, the plaintiff was injured after a “john boat” in which she was a passenger collided with a partially submerged diving dock located in a lake directly in front of lakefront property owned by a defendant on Lake Hampton, in Bradford County. The defendant in Arias argued that since the land beneath the lake was owned by the state, rather than by the defendant, he was not in a position to exercise control over the land upon which the submerged dock rested, and hence he owed the plaintiff no duty to warn of the hazard. The Arias court rejected this contention, stating:
[HN2] The liability of an occupant of real property for injuries caused by an alleged dangerous defective condition on the premises [**7] depends generally upon his control of the property, regardless of whether he had title thereto, or whether he has a superior right to possession of property which is in the possession and control of another. (citation omitted)
Id. at 1138.
There are no facts in this case which would tend to satisfy the elements of “possession” or “control” which led to the court’s decision in Arias. The facts in Arias were that the nearly submerged dock was located several hundred feet directly in front of the defendant’s lakefront property, and that while it was located in the lake before defendant bought the property, the defendant had modified it by placing a thin shelled cement surface on the dock. The Arias court held that it could not be determined, as a matter of law, that the defendant had “failed to maintain the requisite control over the boat dock.” 426 So.2d at 1138. Here, by contrast, the church had no actual or constructive “presence” at the beach prior to the accident. [*555] Appellant and Brannen were the first two canoeists to reach the beach, and hence “occupy” it. Hines arrived a number of minutes after the appellant and other members of the group, [**8] and made no attempt to exercise “de facto” control over the beach or over activities on the beach.
Moreover, the view that potential liability may exist under facts such as found in Arias is premised upon the existence of a hidden danger of which the land owner or occupier has or should have superior knowledge, as compared to the injured party. Here, no evidence was produced to establish the existence of any hidden dangers at the situs of the accident. It was uncontradicted that the river bottom and the beach contained no rocks or obstructions. Nor can the depth of the water itself have been considered a hidden danger, since both appellant and Brannen testified that they were well aware of its relatively shallow depth. Switzer v. Dye, 177 So. 2d 539 (Fla. 1st DCA 1965). Appellant testified that he was aware of the danger of diving into shallow water, and was aware that the water depth at the beach where he was injured was indeed properly characterized as shallow. Hence, there existed in the case at bar no “hidden danger” so as to trigger the rule in Arias.
We think the same result is required here if the potential liability of the church is considered in relation [**9] to its duty to investigate the river for dangerous conditions. The “harmful condition” of the beach (assuming, without accepting, the correctness of this characterization by appellant) was recognized and hence was obvious to all who testified below. Therefore, no breach of duty occurred, since the “harmful condition” was in fact obvious to appellant, who indisputably possessed sufficient maturity to appreciate the danger, and was not in a dependency relationship with the appellee church. See Bradshaw v. Rawlings, 612 F.2d 135 (3d Cir. 1979), cert. den., 446 U.S. 909, 100 S. Ct. 1836, 64 L. Ed. 2d 261 (1980); cf. Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So.2d 658 (Fla. 1982) (school children between the ages of seventeen and eighteen considered to be under an in loco parentis relationship vis-a-vis school officials).
Appellant also maintains that the church assumed a duty of due care by voluntarily acting as a “tour guide” in organizing and conducting the canoeing trip upon which appellant was injured, citing Kaufman v. A-1 Bus Lines, Inc., 416 So.2d 863 (Fla. 3d DCA 1982) (Kaufman II). There, the plaintiff was injured when she fell off a cat-walk while touring a museum visited by [**10] tour groups sponsored by the defendant. The Third District had previously affirmed the Kaufman trial court’s dismissal of Ms. Kaufman’s initial complaint, but did so without prejudice to her right to file an amended complaint alleging defendant’s actual knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition that caused her injury. Kaufman v. A-1 Bus Lines, Inc., 363 So. 2d 61 (Fla. 3d DCA 1978) (Kaufman I). Subsequently, Ms. Kaufman filed an amended complaint alleging that the defendant’s actual knowledge of the allegedly dangerous condition causing her injury created a duty to warn on the defendant’s part. The court in Kaufman II found that the defendant could be held liable for negligence while acting as a tour guide, based on the well-known proposition that [HN3] an action undertaken for the benefit of another, even if performed gratuitously, must be performed in accordance with the duty to exercise due care. 416 So. 2d at 864; see also Padgett v. School Board of Escambia County, 395 So.2d 584 (Fla. 1st DCA 1981).
We agree with appellant that a church’s sponsorship and organization of a canoeing trip could give rise to a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in exercising [**11] these responsibilities. Padgett, supra. We observe, however, that Kaufman II is distinguishable from the case at bar due to the Kaufman II defendant’s status as a common carrier. Furthermore, in view of the undisputed evidence concerning the circumstances under which the accident occurred, we do not find it necessary to examine the [*556] extent of the church’s duty in this case, or to categorize the relationship between plaintiff and defendant here, which would otherwise guide our decision in determining whether the church carried its burden of showing the absence of evidence indicating a breach of duty by the church causing injury to appellant, as required to entitle it to summary judgment. 1
1 Cf., Section 768.13, Florida Statutes (1981), the “Good Samaritan Act,” with commercial transactions (Kaufman II, the “tour guide” situation) and dependency relationships (Rupp; schools in an in loco parentis relationship with students).
Even assuming, arguendo, that the church [**12] owed a duty of adequate supervision to appellant, the breach of which would render it liable for ordinary negligence, appellant can be barred from recovery if his own action in diving into the shallow water was the sole proximate cause of his accident. Phillips v. Styers, 388 So. 2d 221 (Fla. 2d DCA 1980), quoting Hoffman v. Jones, 280 So. 2d 431, 438 (Fla. 1973): ” [HN4] A plaintiff is barred from recovering damages for loss or injury caused by the negligence of another only when the plaintiff’s negligence is the sole legal cause of the damage.” We hold that appellant was properly barred from proceeding further with his claim because the evidence below is susceptible to no conclusion other than that he had sufficient intelligence, experience, and knowledge to – and in fact did – both detect and appreciate the physical characteristics of the swimming place in question and the potential danger involved in attempting his shallow water dive. See, Lister v. Campbell, 371 So. 2d 133 (Fla. 1st DCA 1979), Hughes v. Roarin 20’s, Inc., 455 So. 2d 422 (Fla. 2d DCA 1984). 2
2 See, also, Bourn v. Herring, 225 Ga. 67, 166 S.E.2d 89 (1969), appeal dismissed, 400 U.S. 922, 91 S. Ct. 192, 27 L. Ed. 2d 183 (1970) (church and its representatives held not liable for negligent supervision of Sunday school picnic at lake resort during which youth drowned while attempting to swim from platform in deep water back to shore).
[**13] For the foregoing reasons, the judgment below is
MILLS and NIMMONS, JJ., CONCUR.