Plaintiff tried multiple ways to sue whitewater rafting company

Plaintiff premises claims do not apply to a whitewater rafting company.

Sanders v. Laurel Highlands River Tours, Incorporated, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 15094 (4th Cir 1992)

Plaintiff: James A. Sanders

Defendant: Laurel Highlands River Tours, Incorporated; Laurel Highlands River Tours of Maryland, Incorporated

Plaintiff Claims: (1) he properly presented a “failure to warn claim”; (2) Laurel was strictly liable as a common carrier; (3) the district court abused its discretion in refusing to permit him to supplement the medical expert’s affidavit; (4) the district court erred in finding that the original affidavits were insufficient; and (5) the district court erred in finding that he failed to offer proof from which a reasonable jury could find Laurel negligent in failing to rescue him sooner

Defendant Defenses: no duty to warn Sanders of the dangers of the white-water rafting trip; that he failed to produce evidence that Laurel breached a duty to rescue him at the earliest opportunity; and that he failed to establish causation as to his claim that Laurel failed to adequately treat his injury

Holding: for the defendant

The plaintiff in this case went whitewater rafting previously with the defendant. During his second trip, he fell out of the raft injuring his knee. He later developed a staph infection from the injury. Cases where the plaintiff argues the first aid care was improper or negligent are extremely rare. However, the court rules on a technicality that throws out the plaintiff’s first aid claim and does not provide us with any direction in this area of the law.

During the trip, the plaintiff fell out of the raft and swam about 100 yards until he was rescued. During the swim, he was injured when he struck his knee on something. An employee of the defendant applied an ice bag and an elastic bandage on the trip. The Plaintiff eventually went to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a laceration and a fractured knee cap. The plaintiff later had surgery but developed a staph infection.

The plaintiff asserted the raft guide had the opportunity to rescue him but “the raft guide instructed his companions not to attempt to retrieve him until they got to calmer water.”

The plaintiff filed suit claiming, “that Laurel breached a duty to warn him of the dangers of rafting and that Laurel failed to rescue him at the earliest opportunity. His main claim, as the district court perceived it, was that Laurel failed to render proper first aid, and this was the cause of his subsequent infection.”

Summary of the case

The Plaintiff was a citizen of Alabama. The defendant raft company was located in Pennsylvania. The river where the accident occurred is the upper Youghiogheny in Maryland. The plaintiff sued the defendant in Federal District Court. The parties agreed that a Maryland court, the state where the accident occurred was the proper site for the venue of the case.

This section of the Youghiogheny was described by the court as “most difficult of all categories of river runs.” The court made that determination by using a book that describes the rivers and ratings in the east. The court is silent on how this book was accepted by the court and introduced into evidence.

Most books like this are brought into the evidentiary change through the Federal Rule of Evidence (F.R.E.) 803(18) Learned Treatises. The rules of evidence control what evidence is introduced at trial both as documents or things and what witnesses may say. F.R.E. 803(18) states:

(18) Learned treatises. To the extent called to the attention of an expert witness upon cross-examination or relied upon by the expert witness in direct examination, statements contained in published treatises, periodicals, or pamphlets on a subject of history, medicine, or other science or art, established as a reliable authority by the testimony or admission of the witness or by other expert testimony or by judicial notice. If admitted, the statements may be read into evidence but may not be received as exhibits.

Normally, the rules of evidence require a person to prove the document or book as what the evidence is, and that it is real. If you were trying to introduce the raft company brochure as a piece of evidence, you would have to have the owner or a corporate officer of the company on the stand and testify that the brochure was the brochure.

A Learned Treatise is different in two ways. The first is you do not need the author or the publisher to admit the treatise, the book into evidence. If the treatise is relied upon by an expert witness, testified as a reliable authority in the field or recognized as the authority by the court or the general public, the information in the treatise is accepted in the case. The second issue is everything in the treatise is accepted without additional testimony. Normally, it might take two or three experts to examine a river section and applying the American Whitewater Associations rating system determine the river rating. However, a book that is generally accepted in the whitewater community or by a recognized expert in the field is accepted by the court as a learned treatise under F.R.E. 803(18). Once the book is admitted, every page and statement in the book is admitted.

An important point in most recreational cases is what information the plaintiff had to assist him in his decision to engage in the sport. If the information is lacking the plaintiff introduces the evidence to prove the defendant was hiding things or did not give proper notice of the release or the dangers. If the brochure does a good job of pointing out the risks and the requirements, the defense introduces the brochure into trial. In this case, the plaintiff was mailed a brochure by the defendant. The brochure was reviewed by the court, and the Court pointed out three points in the brochure.

1) Although we spare no effort to assure you a safe trip, it must be understood that whitewater rafting does include some danger. We can assume no responsibility for personal safety . . . . We will ask that you sign a liability form.

2. Experience is a must everyone in your group should have rafted the Cheat [a river classified as lower in difficulty than the upper Youghiogheny] several times at various water levels.

3. Upper Youghiogheny – advanced to expert level. The upper Youghiogheny . . . is the ultimate challenge in white-water rafting.

The defendant also gave the trip participants a safety talk, oral warnings as the court described them at the meeting point and at the river put in. The plaintiff denies hearing the warnings. However, the court referenced the warnings in the opinion giving credibility to them. Finally, the plaintiff signed a release for this trip; the second release signed by the defendant, which the court quoted from:

As a condition of acceptance, I certify that I am an able swimmer, in good health, and understand the sport of white-water rafting. I further understand the potential hazards of the sport of white-water touring and realize that I could fall out of the raft or even capsize in a raft in rough water (rapids). I realize this could possibly result in serious injury. I relieve and save harmless Laurel Highland River Tours, Inc., their Directors, Officers, Stockholders, Employees and Helpers, of any responsibility for all claims of any nature whatsoever . . . .

Failure to Rescue

The Appellate court adopted the District Court’s analysis and finding regarding the claim that the defendant was not rescued quickly. Because the only testimony about whether the rescue was quick enough was the plaintiff’s there was no proof to validate the claim. The court stated an expert witnesses needed to testify that the plaintiff should have been rescued sooner. The plaintiff’s statements were insufficient under Maryland law to prove a claim of negligence.

This claim and the court’s review did not investigate the issue of keeping the majority safe at the expense of one. In a raft and in some cases on a mountain, the guide must evaluate the risk of the rescue to the entire boat, not to the swimming customer. If rescuing the one customer in the river will put the entire boat at risk, the customer will swim a while longer. This point must be made and explained to your guests both in writing and in any safety talk. It is important for the customer in the water to know that their rescue is up to them. It is important for the people in the boat to understand they have to get the boat to a safe area and then rescue so they do not risk themselves needlessly or just quit paddling believing they should grab the swimmer.

Negligent in failing to render first aid.

The claim of negligently failing to properly render first aid is an extremely rare claim. The court again looked at the evidence presented and ruled the evidence was insufficient to meet a claim of negligence; “that the medical evidence failed to show that the infection was caused by improper first aid.” By this court the court stated, there was nothing but the plaintiff’s allegations about how he was injured. Courts want expert testimony from people in the field to rule on scientific, technical or areas of information outside of the general knowledge of the public.

Failure to Warn

The plaintiff argued that the defendant failed to “warn Sanders [the plaintiff] of the extreme danger of the particular section of river they would be traversing.”

The court first examined whether there was a general duty to warn in a non-landowner liability case. The court found that a general duty to warn exists in numerous situations. The court used the example that a stable had a duty to warn a rider of a horse with dangerous propensities.

To establish a duty to warn, the court must look at the following factors: “foreseeability and certainty of harm; policy of preventing harm; closeness of connection between conduct and harm; moral blame; burden on defendant; and insurability.” Looking at the factors the court determined that “A white-water outfitter who arranges and guides customers on rafting trips owes a general duty of care to its customers. The general duty may require, in some circumstances, that Laurel provide a warning to its patrons.”

The warnings that the defendant gave the plaintiff were adequate as a matter of law according to the court. Warnings only need to be reasonable, not the best warnings possible. The court also found the plaintiff had notice of the risks because he had taken a prior whitewater rafting trip and because the risks of whitewater rafting are obvious: “…the general danger of white-water rafting is a risk apparent to anyone about to embark on such a trip.”

Finally, the court determined that the plaintiff’s claim that whitewater rafting was a common carrier, and thus due to a higher standard of care was without merit. By this the court meant, there was no legal or factual basis to discuss the issue.

So Now What?

There is no real information you can take from this case that we have not previously discussed. However, it does show how far some plaintiffs will go to get around and sue for an injury. The defendant had done a good job of putting out to the public information on the risks of the activity which allowed the court to make the decisions to deny the plaintiff’s claims.

Other Common Carrier Cases

WA Zip line lawsuit dismissed because the plaintiff admitted he should have understood the risk            http://rec-law.us/L3IfG1

Electronic release upheld in Florida federal court for surfing on a cruise ship       http://rec-law.us/LPSLWS

New Hampshire season pass release protects ski area from claim for injury due to snowmobile accident                       http://rec-law.us/XaQSpf

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Sanders v. Laurel Highlands River Tours, Incorporated, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 15094 (4th Cir 1992)

Sanders v. Laurel Highlands River Tours, Incorporated, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 15094 (4th Cir 1992)

James A. Sanders, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Laurel Highlands River Tours, Incorporated; Laurel Highlands River Tours of Maryland, Incorporated, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 92-1060

United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 15094

May 5, 1992, Argued

June 29, 1992, Decided

Notice: Rules of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals may limit citation to unpublished opinions. Please refer to the rules of the United States Court of Appeals for this circuit.

Subsequent History: Reported as Table case at 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 22122

Prior History: Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. Frederic N. Smalkin, District Judge. (CA-91-1507-S)

Disposition: Affirmed

Counsel: Argued: Richard Evan Jordan, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

Howard J. Schulman, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Judges: Before Ervin, Chief Judge, Hamilton, Circuit Judge, and Howard, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina, sitting by designation.

Opinion by: Per Curiam

Opinion

Opinion

Per Curiam:

James A. Sanders appeals the order of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Laurel Highlands River Tours, Inc. (Laurel) on his claims arising from injuries he received while on a white-water rafting trip. Sanders also appeals the district court’s denial of his motion for reconsideration of the judgment. The district court granted summary judgment on the grounds that Laurel had no duty to warn Sanders of the dangers of the white-water rafting trip; that he failed to produce evidence that Laurel breached a duty to rescue him at the earliest opportunity; and that he failed to establish causation as to his claim that Laurel failed to adequately treat his injury.

Although the district court erred in ruling that the theory of failure to warn, other than as applied to landowners, does not arise outside of the product liability context, we affirm its decision on the grounds that, as a matter of law, the warnings given to Sanders were adequate and he assumed the risk of undertaking the white-water rafting trip.

I

Laurel is a corporation engaged in the business of outfitting and guiding customers who wish to raft down rivers and their rapids in the Pennsylvania area. One of the guided white-water tours is on the upper portion of the Youghiogheny River in Western Maryland. This portion of the Youghiogheny is classified, according to an industry guide, as within the most difficult of all categories of river runs, suitable for experts. Armstead, Whitewater Rafting in Eastern North America, (2d ed. 1989).

Sanders contracted with Laurel for himself and three of his friends. This trip was not the first Sanders took. On October 24, 1987, Sanders went on a rafting trip with Laurel on the lower Youghiogheny, a run classified as lower in difficulty than the upper Youghiogheny. Prior to the lower Youghiogheny trip, Sanders signed a release of liability which stated in part that he “realized I could fall out of the raft or even capsize in rough water (rapids). I realize this could result in serious injury.” (Exhibit, Joint Appendix (J.A.) 34). On July 20, 1988, Sanders made the reservation for the upper Youghiogheny trip. Sanders concedes that he received, prior to this trip, a brochure that stated, in relevant part:

1)Although we spare no effort to assure you a safe trip, it must be understood that whitewater rafting does include some danger. We can assume no responsibility for personal safety . . . . We will ask that you sign a liability form. (J.A. 44).

2.Experience is a must everyone in your group should have rafted the Cheat [a river classified as lower in difficulty than the upper Youghiogheny] several times at various water levels. (J.A. 40).

3.Upper Youghiogheny – advanced to expert level. The upper Youghiogheny . . . is the ultimate challenge in white-water rafting.

Sanders denies, and we accept for purposes of reviewing this summary judgment, that he heard the oral warnings that Laurel submits it gave about the dangers of white-water rafting in general and the upper Youghiogheny in particular. Laurel asserts that it gave such warnings at the meeting point for participants and the embarkation point at the river. There is no question, however, that Sanders signed a waiver and release card, before both the first trip and the ill-fated one. The card stated, directly above his signature and directly below information he filled out:

As a condition of acceptance, I certify that I am an able swimmer, in good health, and understand the sport of white-water rafting. I further understand the potential hazards of the sport of white-water touring and realize that I could fall out of the raft or even capsize in a raft in rough water (rapids). I realize this could possibly result in serious injury. I relieve and save harmless Laurel Highland River Tours, Inc., their Directors, Officers, Stockholders, Employees and Helpers, of any responsibility for any and all claims of any nature whatsoever . . . . (J.A. 34).

Laurel transported the customers to the drop-off point. At the drop-off point, the customers were given further instructions and outfitted with helmets and life preservers.

Early in the trip, Sanders fell out of the raft and claims he was forced to traverse approximately 100 yards of the rapids bodily. He asserts that, prior to his injury, there was an opportunity for him to be safely retrieved, but that the raft guide instructed his companions not to attempt to retrieve him until they got to calmer water. Sanders injured his knee at some point when he struck a rock and claims that he also suffered an open wound on the knee at that time. A Laurel employee rendered first aid which consisted of applying an ice cap and an elastic bandage to the injured area.

The next morning, Sanders went to an emergency room where he was treated and told to seek further care closer to home. The emergency room records indicate that he had an abrasion and a fractured knee cap. He later had surgery performed on his knee to repair the fracture. Four days later, Sanders developed a staph infection in the upper thigh.

Sanders does not claim that Laurel owed him a duty to prevent him from falling out of the raft. He does assert that Laurel breached a duty to warn him of the dangers of rafting and that Laurel failed to rescue him at the earliest opportunity. His main claim, as the district court perceived it, was that Laurel failed to render proper first aid and this was the cause of his subsequent infection.

The parties focused much of their pre-trial efforts on the purported release which Sanders signed prior to the trip. The district court, however, found it unnecessary to consider this issue.

First, the district court found that the only basis for the claim that he should have been rescued sooner was Sanders’ opinion. The district court ruled that such an opinion concerning when it was safe to get Sanders back into the raft probably required the testimony of an expert, but even if it did not, Sanders’ statements were mere “adjectival descriptions” which, under Maryland law, would be insufficient to prove negligence. (Order, J.A. 254). Sanders’ second claim for relief was that Laurel’s employee was negligent in failing to properly render first aid to him because his wound was not properly cleaned. Here the district court focused on the medical evidence concerning causation, finding that the medical evidence failed to show that the infection was caused by improper first aid.

Sanders filed a motion for reconsideration and attached a supplemental affidavit from one of his medical experts in which the expert specifically opined that the lack of first aid was the cause of the subsequent staph infection. Sanders also claimed that the district court failed to consider his “failure to warn claim.” This failure to warn claim was based on Laurel’s supposed duty to warn Sanders of the extreme danger of the particular section of river they would be traversing.

The district court in its order on reconsideration noted that a “failure to warn” theory of recovery, outside of the landowner liability context, was limited in application to product liability cases. In addition, the district court refused to give Sanders a”second bite at the apple” by supplementing the medical expert’s affidavit. To do so, the court felt, would substantially diminish the purpose and utility of summary judgment.

Sanders appeals on the grounds that: (1) he properly presented a “failure to warn claim”; (2) Laurel was strictly liable as a common carrier; (3) the district court abused its discretion in refusing to permit him to supplement the medical expert’s affidavit; (4) the district court erred in finding that the original affidavits were insufficient; and (5) the district court erred in finding that he failed to offer proof from which a reasonable jury could find Laurel negligent in failing to rescue him sooner.

Laurel argues on appeal against these assertions. It also contends that it was not liable as a matter of law because Sanders knew of the danger and voluntarily assumed the risk, because Sanders agreed, before his injury, to unconditionally release Laurel from any liability, and because Laurel adequately warned Sanders of the dangers involved.

II

Sanders, a citizen of Alabama, brought this suit in federal court against Laurel, a corporate citizen of Pennsylvania, on the basis of diversity. The parties agreed that the law of the locus, Maryland, applied to the action.

[HN1] Appellate review of the granting of a party’s motion for summary judgment is de novo, and the court of appeals uses the same standard as the district court. Charbonnages de France v. Smith, 597 F.2d 406 (4th Cir. 1979).

Initially, it must be noted that the district court erred in holding that a defendant can have no duty to warn outside of landowner and product liability law. See, e.g., Eisel v. Bd. of Educ. of Montgomery Co., 597 A.2d 447 (Md. 1991) (holding that the failure of a school counselor to inform parents of a student’s suicide ideation was grounds for liability of the school); B.N v. K.K., 538 A.2d 1175 (Md. 1988) (holding that the failure of a person to warn his sexual partner that he had genital herpes was grounds for liability for transmission of the disease). [HN2] A duty to warn does extend beyond product liability or landowner liability cases if a warning is called for as a result of one party’s general duty to another.

For example, the owner of a horse with a known dangerous propensity must warn a rider of that danger since that is the appropriate way for him to respond to his duty to his customer. See, e.g., Bass v. Quinn Robins Co., 216 P.2d 944 (Idaho 1950). An airline has a duty to warn a passenger of turbulence it knows is likely to occur. Brittain v. Piedmont Aviation, Inc., 120 S.E.2d 72 (N.C. 1961). An airline may have a duty to warn of conditions of flight if it knows they may affect a passenger with a particular sensitivity to those conditions. Paolone v. American Airlines, Inc., 706 F. Supp. 11 (S.D. N.Y. 1989).

In Eisel, the court discussed [HN3] the factors under which a tort duty arises; these factors are: foreseeability and certainty of harm; policy of preventing harm; closeness of connection between conduct and harm; moral blame; burden on defendant; and insurability. 597 A.2d at 452-55. A white-water outfitter who arranges and guides customers on rafting trips owes a general duty of care to its customers. The general duty may require, in some circumstances, that Laurel provide a warning to its patrons. We decline to hold, as the district court effectively does, that Laurel has no duty to warn of the danger of the rafting trip it sells to its customers.

In this case, however, the error proved harmless because the warnings given, as a matter of law, were adequate. * The district court based its opinion on the proposition that there was no duty to warn. Because the record is clear and the facts apparent, however, we need not remand for consideration. Cf. Federal Deposit Insur. Corp. v. Jones, 846 F.2d 221 (4th Cir. 1988).* The district court correctly noted that the warnings Laurel gave were adequate as a matter of law and that the general dangers of white-water rafting are apparent. However, it assumed for purposes of summary judgment that this was not the case and based its holding on other grounds.

There can be no real dispute that Laurel gave Sanders adequate warnings of the hazards of white-water rafting in general and the enhanced hazards of rafting the upper Youghiogheny in particular. Warnings need only be reasonable, they need not be the best possible warnings in the circumstances. Nolan v. Dillon, 276 A.2d 36 (Md. 1971). In this case, Laurel provided several warnings of the general risks and at least one specific warning that Sanders could fall out and be injured. A more specific or adequate warning could not be required.

Furthermore, it is uncontestable that Sanders had previously been on a white-water rafting experience and had twice signed release cards that specifically warned of the dangers of falling out, capsizing and injury. Even if Sanders neither heard nor read the many warnings given him, the general danger of white-water rafting is a risk apparent to anyone about to embark on such a trip. See Saenz v. Whitewater Voyages, Inc., 226 Cal. 3d 768, 276 Cal. Rptr. 672 (1st Dist. 1990).

Given the obviousness of the general risks involved, the warnings given of the specific risk from which Sanders was injured, and his previous rafting experience, Sanders assumed the risk of his injury. [HN4] Under Maryland law, participants assume the obvious and apparent risks of engaging in such sports. Nesbitt v. Bethesda Country Club, 314 A.2d 738 (Md. App. 1974). Clearly under Maryland law, if a plaintiff, as here, voluntarily exposes himself to a known danger of which he was warned or otherwise knows of, he has assumed the risk that danger poses. Gibson v. Beaver, 226 A.2d 273 (Md. 1967).

III

With regard to the claims that Laurel failed to rescue Sanders at the earliest opportunity and that it failed to render proper first aid, we have considered the briefs and the arguments of the parties and affirm on the reasoning of the district court. Sanders v. Laurel Highlands River Tours, Inc., No. CA-91-1507-S (D. Md. Nov. 15, 1991). We further find the claim that Laurel was strictly liable as a common carrier to be without merit. Accordingly, the decision of the district court is affirmed.

AFFIRMED

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