Balloon ride in California is not a common carrier, and the release signed by the plaintiff bars the plaintiff’s claims even though she did not read or speak EnglishPosted: October 2, 2017
An outfitter must follow industry norms when dealing with guests. If the rest of the industry gives guests a safety talk, then you better give guests a safety talk. The problem arises when your guest cannot understand what you are saying.
State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two
Plaintiff: Erika Grotheer
Defendant: Escape Adventures, Inc., the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher, and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc.,
Plaintiff Claims: negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed its passengers a heightened duty of care
Defendant Defenses: Plaintiff could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver.
Holding: For the Defendant
Being labeled a common carrier means you owe a higher degree of care to your guests than normal. However, a hot-air balloon ride is not classified as a common carrier because the analysis used under California law, whether the operator has control over the activity, is not met in ballooning. A balloon pilot can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon, all else is left to Mother Nature.
Assumption of risk under California law eliminates a duty that might be owed by the outfitter or in this case the balloon operator. However, not giving a safety talk before the ride is not an inherent risk assumed by the plaintiff. Since the industry, the ballooning industry, gives safety talks, then there is a duty on a balloon operator to give a safety talk to its guests.
However, if no safety talk was given, that still does not mean the outfitter is liable if the injury the plaintiff received was not proximately caused by the failure to give a safety talk.
The plaintiff is German and does not speak English. Her son signed her up for a balloon flight in the California wine country. The ride crash landed, as most balloon flights do and the plaintiff suffered a broken leg.
The three defendants were the balloon company, the balloon pilot and the winery where the launch and crash occurred.
The plaintiff sued alleging negligence and because the defendant was a common carrier, the defendant owed the plaintiff a higher duty of care.
A common carrier in most states is a business operating moving people from one place to another for a fee. The transportation company owes a higher degree of care to its passengers because the passenger has no control over the way the transportation is provided or how the transportation is maintained.
A good example of this is a commercial airline. You have no idea if the plane is maintained, and you cannot fly the plane. Consequently, your life is totally in the hands of a commercial airline.
The other component of a common carrier is usually the movement is from point A to point B and the main reason is the passenger needs to get from point A to point B. In California the movement is not as important as it is in the other states. In California, the decided factor is the control factor. California’s definition of a common carrier is much broader and encompasses many more types of transportation, including transportation for recreation or thrills, not necessarily for getting from one place to the next.
However, in California the analysis is not who has control but who has what control.
For additional articles about common carriers see Zip line accused of being a common carrier who makes releases unenforceable. Issue still not decided, however, in all states common carriers cannot use a release as a defense and California case examines the relationship between a common carrier and public policy when applied to a ski area chair lift.
The plaintiff based her claim on failing to instruct her in the risks of ballooning and what to do if the balloon were to crash. The balloonists met at the winery and then drove to the launch site. All but the plaintiff rode with the balloon company where the defendants claim they gave a safety speech. The plaintiff rode with her son to the launch site and did not hear the speech.
More importantly, the plaintiff did not speak or understand English so even if she would have heard the safety talk, whether or not she could have understood it would be a question.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims find the plaintiff could not prove the element of duty; One of the four requirements to prove negligence. The trial court also found the plaintiff had assumed the risk and as such the defendants did not owe her any duty of care. The plaintiff appealed.
Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.
The court started with the Common Carrier analysis.
California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.
The court defined common carrier by statute as “A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” This higher degree of care only applies to carriers who hold themselves out to the public for hire.
A carrier of persons without reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.
The level of care is not absolute; common carriers are not insurers of the safety of their passengers. However, they are required to do all that “human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.” This heightened duty originated in England, prior to the US becoming a country and was based on:
This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers.
In California, the common carrier status started with stage coaches. Since then the application of the term and the heightened duty has evolved and broadened to include recreational transportation, “scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters “have all been deemed common carriers under California law.”
In California, the degree of care is defined more by the control the passenger has over the transportation. Roller Coasters are common carriers because the passenger has no control over the speed of the coaster or the maintenance on the coaster. At the same time, bumper cars are not common carriers because the passenger is able to steer and control the speed and direction of the bumper car.
In California, the “inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury.”
The court found the hot-air balloon was not a common carrier. Although the passenger has little if any control over the flight of the balloon, neither does the pilot of the balloon. The only control the pilot has is changing the altitude of the balloon.
…balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity.
The analysis the court applied then turned on how much control the operator of the transportation had, not how little the passenger had.
But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon.
Thus a balloon pilot does not owe his or her customer a heightened duty of care.
Assumption of the risk was the next defense the court examined. Under California law if the plaintiff assumes the risk, then the defendant does not owe the plaintiff any duty of care.
Under California law, a balloon operator does not owe his or her passengers a duty of care for the inherent risks of the activity. “The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.”
Because the pilot of a hot-air balloon can only control the ascent and descent of the balloon and no other control of the balloon, the passenger must assume the risk of all things ballooning.
We therefore hold the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent.
Consequently, the pilot and the balloon company owed no duty to the plaintiff. The inherent risks of ballooning include crashing.
The court then looked at the issue of whether or not the plaintiff received any safety instructions prior to the flight. A guide, outfitter or operator of a balloon which is an inherently dangerous activity still owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks. However, those steps must not fundamentality alter the activity. “The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous.”
What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so.
The issue then becomes whether or not the balloon operator owes a duty to provide safety instructions.
Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty.
Foreseeability is a primary factor in determining whether a duty exists. In this case, the court concluded that providing a safety briefing was custom in the industry. Nor would giving a safety lecture be overly burdensome to the balloon operator or pilot.
The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires
only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry.
So the balloon operator did owe the plaintiff a duty to provide her with a safety instruction. However, that was not the end of the analysis. To prove negligence you must prove a duty, a breach of the duty an injury that was proximately caused by the breach of the duty and damages. In this case, the failure to provide a safety breeching was not the reason why the plaintiff broke her leg, or at least, the plaintiff could not prove the proximate causation.
Examined another way, for the injury of the plaintiff to be proximately caused by the breach of duty of the defendant, the acts of the defendant must be a substantial factor in that injury.
To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.”
The balloon landing was called a jarring and violent crash by all witnesses. The plaintiff was on the bottom of the pile of people when the basket stopped moving, lying on its side. Any safety talk probably would not have helped the plaintiff prevent her leg from breaking in such a landing. “The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury.”
Consequently, although the balloon operator breached his duty of care to the plaintiff, the injury that occurred to the plaintiff was due to the crash of the balloon which was a violent event rather than the plaintiff being able to deal with a normal landing properly.
So Now What?
The safety instruction duty is troublesome. How is an outfitter supposed to provide a safety instruction if the customer cannot comprehend what is being said. In this case, there might have been a way around it if the son could translate for the plaintiff. However, in many cases a family from a foreign country with little or no English shows up for a recreational activity with little or no understanding of the activity or the risks. The outfitter has no way of making sure the customer understands the safety briefing if the outfitter does not speak the customer’s language.
In California, if you have a customer who does not understand what you are saying, you must probably turn them away.
Copyright 2017 Recreation Law (720) 334 8529
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Erika Grotheer, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Escape Adventures, Inc., et al., Defendants and Respondents.
Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division Two
14 Cal. App. 5th 1283; 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 764
August 31, 2017, Opinion Filed
PRIOR HISTORY: [**1] APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County, No. RIC1216581, John W. Vineyard, Judge.
COUNSEL: The Law Office of Robert J. Pecora and Robert J. Pecora for Plaintiff and Appellant.
Agajanian, McFall, Weiss, Tetreault & Crist and Paul L. Tetreault for Defendants and Respondents.
JUDGES: Opinion by Slough, J., with Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurring.
OPINION BY: Slough, J.
SLOUGH, J.–Plaintiff and appellant Erika Grotheer is a non-English speaking German citizen who took a hot air balloon ride in the Temecula [*1288] wine country and suffered a fractured leg when the basket carrying her and seven or eight others crash-landed into a fence. Grotheer sued three defendants for her injuries: the balloon tour company, Escape Adventures, Inc. (Escape), the pilot and Escape’s agent, Peter Gallagher (Gallagher), and Wilson Creek Vineyards, Inc. (Wilson Creek) (collectively, defendants or respondents). Grotheer alleged Escape and Gallagher negligently or recklessly operated the balloon by (1) failing to properly slow its descent during landing and (2) failing to give the passengers safe landing instructions before the launch. Grotheer alleged the hot air balloon company is a common carrier, and as such, owed [**2] its passengers a heightened duty of care. (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Grotheer also alleged Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct because the vineyard shared a special relationship with the balloon company.
Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer could not satisfy the elements of a negligence claim and, even if she could, she had waived the right to assert such a claim by signing Escape’s liability waiver before the flight. The trial court agreed Grotheer could not establish the element of duty, finding Grotheer had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine and, as a result, Escape and Gallagher owed her no duty of care whatsoever. (Knight v. Jewett (1992) 3 Cal.4th 296 [11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 2, 834 P.2d 696] (Knight).) The trial court entered judgment in favor of defendants, and Grotheer appealed.
Grotheer contends the trial court erred in concluding her claim was barred by primary assumption of risk and reasserts on appeal that Escape is a common carrier. We affirm the judgment, but on a different ground than relied on by the trial court. We hold: (1) a balloon tour company like Escape is not a common carrier subject to a heightened duty of care; (2) the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars [**3] Grotheer’s claim that Gallagher negligently failed to slow the balloon’s descent to avoid a crash landing; and (3) Escape does have a duty to provide safe landing instructions to its passengers, but the undisputed evidence regarding the crash demonstrates that any failure on Escape’s part to provide such instructions was not the cause of Grotheer’s injury.
Grotheer’s son, Thorsten, purchased his mother a ticket for a hot air balloon tour with Escape during her visit to California, as a present for her [*1289] 78th birthday. On the morning of the tour, Grotheer and Thorsten met with the Escape crew and the other passengers in the parking lot of the vineyard owned by Wilson Creek, near the field where Escape launched its balloons. Thorsten later testified at his deposition that when they arrived to check in, he tried to explain his mother’s language barrier to the flight crew so Escape could ensure she understood any safety instructions. Thorsten said Gallagher, the pilot, responded by waving him away and saying, “Everything is going to be fine.” Thorsten tried telling two more Escape employees his mother could not understand English, but they appeared to be in [**4] a rush and told him he could not be in the immediate launch vicinity if he had not purchased a ticket. At some point during this check-in activity, Grotheer signed Escape’s liability waiver, which purported to release the company and its agents from claims based on “ordinary negligence.”
Gallagher then drove the passengers to the nearby launchsite. Grotheer drove over separately, with Thorsten. In his declaration, Gallagher said he gave the passengers safety instructions during the drive, as is his custom. He said the instructions covered what to do during landing: “I described to my passengers what to expect in terms of lifting off … and landing … I told them to bend their knees and hold on upon landing, and not to exit the basket until told to do so.”
According to passengers Boyd and Kristi Roberts, however, neither Escape nor Gallagher provided safety instructions. Boyd declared he sat in the front passenger seat next to Gallagher during the drive, which lasted a little over a minute and during which Gallagher described his credentials and years of experience. Boyd remembered receiving “a very general informational talk … about what to expect on [the] flight,” but said [**5] “[t]here was no mention of safety issues or proper techniques for take-off and landing.” Boyd’s wife, Kristi, also rode to the launchsite with Gallagher and said she never heard him give instructions, “other than to hold on as we took off.”
B. The Crash
The tour proceeded without incident until the landing. According to the four accounts in the record, as the balloon descended at a high rate of speed, the basket crashed into a fence then crashed into the ground and bounced and skidded for about 40 yards before finally coming to a stop, on its side. By all accounts, the event was forceful and caused the passengers to be tossed about the basket.
Boyd Roberts described the crash landing as follows: “The balloon was being pushed at a good clip by the wind and we were travelling in a horizontal direction as we were also descending. We were going sideways, [*1290] and … [b]efore we landed, we actually crashed into and took out several sections of [a] 3 rail fence.” After the basket collided with the fence, it hit the ground “with a hard bump and a bounce.” The passengers were “taken for a wild ride as [the basket] was getting dragged downwind [by the balloon].” The basket “became more and more horizontal” as [**6] it was being dragged. “We easily skipped 30 or 40 yards, with a couple of hard impacts along the way.” When the basket finally came to rest, it was “on its side, not its bottom,” with Grotheer’s section on the bottom and Boyd’s on top. He recalled that Grotheer was below him “lying on what was the side of the [basket] which was now the floor.”
Kristi Roberts’s account of the crash landing matches Boyd’s. She said, “we were going pretty fast towards the ground and it looked like we might hit the fence. We did hit the fence, as the [basket] crashed in the top of the three rails, and knocked it right apart.” After that, the basket “hit the ground hard.” Kristi recalled, “I was holding on as tight as I could to the [b]asket, but we were all standing up and it was hard to keep from falling over when we crashed into the ground.”
Gallagher described the landing similarly, though not in as much detail. He said the balloon had been “descending more quickly than anticipated” and the “passenger compartment of the balloon made a hard landing, first on a fence, then on the ground.” He believed the balloon’s descent had been hastened by a “false lift,” which he described as a condition where the wind travels [**7] faster over the top of the balloon than the rest of the balloon. The faster wind creates lift, but when the wind slows the aircraft can quickly lose altitude unless the pilot adds more heat to the balloon’s envelope. In his declaration, Gallagher said he “applied as much heat as possible to the envelope to add buoyancy,” but the additional heat was not sufficient to arrest the descent before the balloon hit the fence.
In her deposition, Grotheer said the balloon basket experienced two forceful impacts, first with the fence, then with the ground. She recalled she had been holding on to the metal rod in the basket when it hit the fence, but despite holding on, she was “still sliding.” She believed her leg broke upon the second impact–when the balloon hit the ground after the collision with the fence. She described her injury as follows: “The people in the balloon, they were all holding. It was hard. It hit the ground hard. And one woman just came like this (indicating).” Grotheer added, “[a]nd the lady is innocent because even her, she was pushed. She was pushed around by the other people in the basket.” Grotheer did not think anyone collided with her after that initial impact with the ground. [**8] She explained, “I just got myself real quick together. [The injury] was just at the beginning.” [*1291]
James Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert who has piloted balloons for over 25 years, concluded the cause of the crash landing was Gallagher’s “failure to maintain safe control over the ‘delta’ temperature[,] anticipate changing pressure differentials[,] and counterbalance the effects on the rate of descent.” He disagreed with Gallagher’s false lift theory, opining instead the balloon had likely simply experienced a wind shear. He believed all Gallagher had to do “to avoid this crash entirely” was add “sufficient heat” to the envelope “before the Balloon was already about to crash.”
Kitchel explained that many people perceive ballooning as a gentle, peaceful experience, but in reality, balloon rides “can be violent, high speed events with tragic results.” What makes a balloon a risky conveyance is the pilot’s inability to directly control the balloon’s movement. A pilot can directly control only the balloon’s altitude, which is done by managing the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. The direction and speed of the wind determines lateral movement. Kitchel stated, “There is no way of steering [**9] a Balloon, such as by having a rudder. … [A] Balloon pilot never truly knows where the Balloon is going to land. He is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.”
Kitchel also opined that the industry standard of care requires a commercial balloon operator to give “at the very least, one detailed safety presentation.” According to Kitchel, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Balloon Flying Handbook (FAA Handbook) suggests the following safety instructions to prepare passengers for a “firm impact” upon landing: (1) “Stand in the appropriate area of the basket”; (2) “Face the direction of travel”; (3) “Place feet and knees together, with knees bent”; (4) “‘Hold on tight’ in two places”; and (5) “Stay in the basket.” Kitchel did not believe any one particular set of instructions was required and he described the FAA Handbook’s safe landing procedures as a “good minimum standard.”
C. The Complaint
Grotheer’s complaint against defendants alleged she was injured when the balloon “crash land[ed] into a fence located on WILSON CREEK property.” She alleged her injury was a result of negligent piloting and failure to provide safety instructions. She also alleged Escape is a common carrier and [**10] has a duty to ensure the safety of its passengers.
D. The Summary Judgment Motion
Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law because she had assumed the risk of her injury under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. Defendants also [*1292] sought summary judgment on their liability waiver affirmative defense, claiming Grotheer had expressly waived her right to assert a negligence claim. In opposition, Grotheer argued: (1) the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not apply to common carriers like Escape; (2) the doctrine did not relieve Escape and Gallagher of a duty to avoid the crash landing and to provide safety instructions; and (3) the liability waiver was invalid because Escape knew she did not speak English and could not understand it. Grotheer also argued Wilson Creek was vicariously liable for Escape’s breach because the two companies were in a “symbiotic business relationship.”
After a hearing, the court concluded it was undisputed hot air ballooning is a risky activity that can involve crash landings, Grotheer assumed the risk of injury from a crash landing by voluntarily riding in the balloon, and defendants [**11] owed no duty whatsoever to protect her from her injury. The court also concluded Wilson Creek was not vicariously liable for Escape and Gallagher’s conduct. However, the court denied the motion for summary judgment on the liability waiver defense, stating, “there is at least an arguable duress in being separated from her son who was her translator at the time and not understanding the circumstances based on the language. I think that’s a triable issue of fact.” Based on its finding of no duty, the court concluded Grotheer’s negligence claim failed as a matter of law, and it entered judgment in favor of defendants.
A. Standard of Review
[HN1] A trial court properly grants summary judgment when there are no triable issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (c).) “The purpose of the law of summary judgment is to provide courts with a mechanism to cut through the parties’ pleadings in order to determine whether, despite their allegations, trial is in fact necessary to resolve their dispute.” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843 [107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 841, 24 P.3d 493] (Aguilar).)
[HN2] A defendant who moves for summary judgment bears the initial burden to show the action has no merit–that is, “one or more elements of the [**12] cause of action, even if not separately pleaded, cannot be established, or that there is a complete defense to [that] cause of action.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subds. (a), (p)(2).) Once the defendant meets this initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the existence of a triable issue of [*1293] material fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) “From commencement to conclusion, the moving party defendant bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact and that the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Laabs v. Southern California Edison Co. (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 1260, 1268-1269 [97 Cal. Rptr. 3d 241].) [HN3] We review the trial court’s ruling on a summary judgment motion de novo, liberally construing the evidence in favor of the party opposing the motion and resolving all doubts about the evidence in favor of the opponent. (Miller v. Department of Corrections (2005) 36 Cal.4th 446, 460 [30 Cal. Rptr. 3d 797, 115 P.3d 77].) We consider all of the evidence the parties offered in connection with the motion, except that which the court properly excluded.1 (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 476 [110 Cal. Rptr. 2d 370, 28 P.3d 116].)
1 Without supporting argument, Grotheer claims the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to consider her objections to defendants’ evidence, and her responses to defendants’ objections to her evidence, on the ground they were untimely filed on the day of the hearing. We will not consider this claim, however, because Grotheer has not explained why any of her objections or responses had merit, or how she was prejudiced by the court’s failure to consider them. (City of Santa Maria v. Adam (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 266, 287 [149 Cal. Rptr. 3d 491] [“we may disregard conclusory arguments that … fail to disclose [appellant’s] reasoning”].)
B. Escape Is Not a Common Carrier and Did Not Owe Grotheer a Heightened Duty To Ensure Her Safe Carriage
Grotheer claims Escape is a common carrier and therefore owed its passengers a heightened duty of care to ensure their safe carriage during the balloon tour. We conclude a hot air balloon operator like Escape is not a common [**13] carrier as a matter of law.
[HN4] (1) In general, every person owes a duty to exercise “reasonable care for the safety of others,” however, California law imposes a heightened duty of care on operators of transportation who qualify as “common carriers” to be as diligent as possible to protect the safety of their passengers. (See Civ. Code, §§ 1714, subd. (a), 2100, 2168.) “A carrier of persons for reward must use the utmost care and diligence for their safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100.) Contrary to Escape’s contention, it is necessary to resolve whether Escape is a common carrier because the heightened duty of care in Civil Code section 2100 precludes the application of the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Nalwa v. Cedar Fair, L.P. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 1148, 1161 [150 Cal. Rptr. 3d 551, 290 P.3d 1158] (Nalwa).) [*1294]
Whether a hot air balloon operator is a common carrier is an issue of first impression in California.2 It is also a question of law, as the material facts regarding Escape’s operations are not in dispute.3 (Huang v. The Bicycle Casino, Inc. (2016) 4 Cal.App.5th 329, 339 [208 Cal. Rptr. 3d 591] (Huang).)
2 The only published case addressing the issue is Balloons Over the Rainbow, Inc. v. Director of Revenue (Mo. 2014) 427 S.W.3d 815, where a hot air balloon operator argued it was a common carrier under Missouri law for tax purposes. The Supreme Court of Missouri upheld the administrative hearing commissioner’s determination the operator was not a common carrier because it exercised discretion regarding which passengers to fly and therefore did not “carry all people indifferently,” as the statutory definition required. (Id. at pp. 825-827.)
3 Escape claims it stipulated to being a common carrier in its motion for summary judgment. Actually, Escape stated was it was not “controvert[ing] at [that] time the assertion that it is a common carrier.” But even if it had so stipulated, [HN5] we are not bound by agreements that amount to conclusions of law. (E.g., People v. Singh (1932) 121 Cal.App. 107, 111 [8 P.2d 898].)
[HN6] (2) A common carrier of persons is anyone “who offers to the public to carry persons.” (Civ. Code, § 2168.) The Civil Code treats common carriers differently depending on whether they act gratuitously or for reward. (Gomez v. Superior Court (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1125, 1130 [29 Cal. Rptr. 3d 352, 113 P.3d 41] (Gomez).) “A carrier of persons without [**14] reward must use ordinary care and diligence for their safe carriage.” (Civ. Code, § 2096.) But “[c]arriers of persons for reward have long been subject to a heightened duty of care.” (Gomez, at p. 1128.) Such carriers “must use the utmost care and diligence for [passengers’] safe carriage, must provide everything necessary for that purpose, and must exercise to that end a reasonable degree of skill.” (Civ. Code, § 2100; accord, Gomez, at p. 1130.) While common carriers are not insurers of their passengers’ safety, they are required “‘to do all that human care, vigilance, and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances.'” (Squaw Valley Ski Corp. v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1499, 1507 [3 Cal. Rptr. 2d 897].) This duty originated in English common law and is “based on a recognition that the privilege of serving the public as a common carrier necessarily entails great responsibility, requiring common carriers to exercise a high duty of care towards their customers.” (Ibid.)
Common carrier status emerged in California in the mid-19th century as a narrow concept involving stagecoaches hired purely for transportation. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1131.) Over time, however, the concept expanded to include a wide array of recreational transport like scenic airplane and railway tours, ski lifts, and roller coasters. (Id. at pp. 1131-1136.) This expansion reflects the policy determination [**15] that a passenger’s purpose, be it recreation, thrill-seeking, or simply conveyance from point A to B, should not control whether the operator should bear a higher duty to protect the passenger. (Id. at p. 1136.)
In Gomez, the California Supreme Court concluded roller coasters are common carriers, despite their purely recreational purpose, because they are [*1295] “‘operated in the expectation that thousands of patrons, many of them children, will occupy their seats'” and are “held out to the public to be safe.” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) As with other recreational transportation like ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, “‘the lives and safety of large numbers of human beings'” are entrusted to the roller coaster operator’s “‘diligence and fidelity.'” (Ibid., quoting Treadwell v. Whittier (1889) 80 Cal. 574, 591 [22 P. 266].)
Despite the consistent trend toward broadening the common carrier definition to include recreational vehicles, almost a decade after Gomez the California Supreme Court refused to apply the heightened duty of care to operators of bumper cars, finding them “dissimilar to roller coasters in ways that disqualify their operators as common carriers.” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) Crucial to the analysis in Nalwa was that bumper car riders “‘exercise independent control over the steering and acceleration,'” [**16] whereas roller coaster riders “‘ha[ve] no control over the elements of thrill of the ride; the amusement park predetermines any ascents, drops, accelerations, decelerations, turns or twists of the ride.'” (Ibid.) This difference in control convinced the court that “[t]he rationale for holding the operator of a roller coaster to the duties of a common carrier for reward–that riders, having delivered themselves into the control of the operator, are owed the highest degree of care for their safety–simply does not apply to bumper car riders’ safety from the risks inherent in bumping.” (Ibid., italics added.)
(3) This precedent teaches that [HN7] the key inquiry in the common carrier analysis is whether passengers expect the transportation to be safe because the operator is reasonably capable of controlling the risk of injury. (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161.) While a bumper car rider maintains a large degree of control over the car’s speed and direction, a roller coaster rider recognizes the thrills and unpredictability of the ride are manufactured for his amusement by an operator who in reality maintains direct control over the coaster’s speed and direction at all times. (Gomez, at p. 1136.) As our high court explained, the roller coaster rider “expects [**17] to be surprised and perhaps even frightened, but not hurt.” (Ibid.)
It is in this critical regard we find a hot air balloon differs from those recreational vehicles held to a common carrier’s heightened duty of care. Unlike operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains, balloon pilots do not maintain direct and precise control over the speed and direction of the balloon. A pilot directly controls only the balloon’s altitude, by monitoring the amount of heat added to the balloon’s envelope. A pilot has no direct control over the balloon’s latitude, which is determined by the wind’s speed and direction. A balloon’s lack of power and steering poses risks of midair collisions and crash landings, making ballooning a risky activity. (See [*1296] Hulsey v. Elsinore Parachute Center (1985) 168 Cal.App.3d 333, 345-346 [214 Cal. Rptr. 194] [hot air ballooning “involve[s] a risk of harm to persons or property” because pilots cannot “direct their paths of travel … [or] land in small, targeted areas”]; Note, Negligence in the [Thin] Air: Understanding the Legal Relationship Between Outfitters and Participants in High Risk Expeditions Through Analysis of the 1996 Mount Everest Tragedy (2008) 40 Conn. L.Rev. 769, 772 [“hot air ballooning” is a “high-risk activity”].) As Kitchel, Grotheer’s expert, [**18] put it, a balloon pilot “is at the mercy of the wind speed and direction.” (See Note, On a Wind and a Prayer (1997) 83 A.B.A. J. 94, 95 [“winds … can transform a wondrous journey into a life-or-death struggle”].)
[HN8] (4) The mere existence of risk is not sufficient to disqualify a vehicle as a common carrier, however. Roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains all pose “‘inherent dangers owing to speed or mechanical complexities.'” (Gomez, supra, 35 Cal.4th at p. 1136.) But there is a significant difference between the dangers of riding those conveyances and the dangers involved in ballooning. The former can be virtually eliminated through engineering design and operator skill, whereas the latter cannot be mitigated without altering the fundamental nature of a balloon.
Operators of roller coasters, ski lifts, airplanes, and trains can take steps to make their conveyances safer for passengers without significantly altering the transportation experience. For example, roller coaster operators can invest in state-of-the-art construction materials and control devices or task engineers with designing a ride that provides optimal thrills without sacrificing passenger safety. With a balloon, on the other hand, safety measures and pilot training [**19] go only so far toward mitigating the risk of midair collisions and crash landings. The only way to truly eliminate those risks is by adding power and steering to the balloon, thereby rendering vestigial the very aspect of the aircraft that makes it unique and desirable to passengers.
(5) Because no amount of pilot skill can completely counterbalance a hot air balloon’s limited steerability, ratcheting up the degree of care a tour company must exercise to keep its passengers safe would require significant changes to the aircraft and have a severe negative impact on the ballooning industry. For that reason, we conclude [HN9] Escape is not a common carrier as a matter of law.
C. The Trial Court Incorrectly Determined Escape Owed Grotheer No Duty of Care
Having concluded a hot air balloon company does not owe its passengers a heightened duty of care, we must decide whether Escape owed Grotheer any [*1297] duty of care to protect her from her injury. Grotheer claims Escape and Gallagher had a duty to safely pilot the balloon and to provide safety instructions. Escape contends it owed neither duty under the primary assumption of risk doctrine. We analyze each separately.
1. Balloon piloting and primary assumption [**20] of risk
Grotheer alleges her injury was caused in part by Gallagher’s subpar piloting. Her expert opined the cause of the crash was Gallagher’s failure to control the speed and direction of the balloon’s descent by anticipating changing pressure differentials and maintaining the proper amount of heat in the balloon’s envelope. According to Kitchel, Gallagher could have avoided the crash entirely by “adding sufficient heat … in a timely manner.”
[HN10] (6) “‘Although persons generally owe a duty of due care not to cause an unreasonable risk of harm to others … , some activities … are inherently dangerous,'” such that “‘[i]mposing a duty to mitigate those inherent dangers could alter the nature of the activity or inhibit vigorous participation.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1154, citation omitted.) Primary assumption of risk is a doctrine of limited duty “developed to avoid such a chilling effect.” (Ibid.) If it applies, the operator is not obligated to protect its customers from the “inherent risks” of the activity. (Id. at p. 1162.)
“‘Primary assumption of risk is merely another way of saying no duty of care is owed as to risks inherent in a given sport or activity. The overriding consideration in the application of this principle is to avoid imposing a duty [**21] which might chill vigorous participation in the sport and thereby alter its fundamental nature.'” (Jimenez v. Roseville City School Dist. (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 594, 601 [202 Cal. Rptr. 3d 536].) “Although the doctrine is often applied as between sports coparticipants, it defines the duty owed as between persons engaged in any activity involving inherent risks.” (Ibid.) The doctrine applies to any activity “done for enjoyment or thrill … [that] involves a challenge containing a potential risk of injury.” (Record v. Reason (1999) 73 Cal.App.4th 472, 482 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 547]; see Beninati v. Black Rock City, LLC (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 650, 658 [96 Cal. Rptr. 3d 105] [by attending Burning Man festival plaintiff assumed risk of being burned during ritual burning of eponymous effigy].)
The test is whether the activity “‘involv[es] an inherent risk of injury to voluntary participants … where the risk cannot be eliminated without altering the fundamental nature of the activity.'” (Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1156.) As we concluded above in the section on common carriers, a balloon’s limited steerability creates risks of midair collisions and crash landings. Moreover, those risks cannot be mitigated except by adding power [*1298] and steering, which would fundamentally alter the free-floating nature of a balloon, turning it into a dirigible.4 “‘[T]he excitement of [ballooning] is that you never know exactly where you’re going to land. [¶] … [¶] … It’s taking something that is unsteerable [**22] and trying to steer it. That’s the challenge.'” (Note, On a Wind and a Prayer, supra, 83 A.B.A. J. at pp. 95, 94; cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 1157-1158 [refusing to impose liability on bumper car operators for injuries caused in collisions as doing so would have the effect of “‘decreasing the speed'”–and ultimately the fun–of the ride].)
4 The term “dirigible” literally means “steerable.” It comes from the Latin verb dirigere, meaning “to direct,” and refers to lighter-than-air aircraft capable of being steered, like blimps and zeppelins. (Webster’s 3d New Internat. Dict. (1993) p. 642.)
(7) We therefore hold [HN11] the doctrine applies to crash landings caused by the failure to safely steer a hot air balloon. We further hold Grotheer’s claim of pilot error falls under the primary assumption of risk doctrine because the claim goes to the core of what makes balloon landings inherently risky–the challenge of adjusting the balloon’s vertical movement to compensate for the unexpected changes in horizontal movement. As a result, Escape had no legal duty to protect Grotheer from crash landings caused by its pilot’s failure to safely manage the balloon’s descent.
(8) To avoid this outcome, Grotheer alleged Gallagher’s piloting was not only negligent, but grossly negligent, thereby increasing the inherent risk of crash landing. Grotheer is correct [HN12] the primary assumption of risk does not eliminate an operator’s duty to refrain from engaging in reckless conduct that “unreasonably increase[s] the risks of injury beyond those inherent in the activity.” ( [**23] Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162.) However, she has provided no evidence Gallagher’s piloting fell so outside the range of ordinary it unreasonably increased the inherent risk of crash landing.
Gross negligence is a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. (City of Santa Barbara v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 747, 754 [62 Cal. Rptr. 3d 527, 161 P.3d 1095].) In this context, such extreme conduct might be, for example, launching without sufficient fuel, in bad weather, or near electrical towers; using unsafe or broken equipment; or overloading the passenger basket. In the absence of evidence of such conduct, we hold the primary assumption of risk doctrine bars Grotheer’s piloting claim.
Grotheer compares Gallagher’s piloting to the conduct of the skier defendant in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area v. Graham (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 1367 [38 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422] (Mammoth Mountain), but the analogy is inapt. In Mammoth Mountain, a snowboarding instructor was injured when he collided with a skier who had stopped midslope to throw snowballs at his brother. The [*1299] court reversed summary judgment granted on the basis of primary assumption of risk, concluding there was a factual issue as to whether the skier’s behavior was so “outside the range of ordinary activity involved in the sport of snowboarding” that it increased the inherent risk of colliding with others on the slope. [**24] (Id. at pp. 1373-1374.) Gallagher’s alleged failure to control the balloon’s descent is nothing like the skier’s conduct in Mammoth Mountain. Skiing does not entail throwing snowballs, whereas managing speed and direction in the face of changing wind conditions is the principal challenge in ballooning. As a result, the failure to surmount that challenge falls squarely within the range of ordinary activity for ballooning.
2. Safety instructions and the duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks
(9) Grotheer also claims her injury was caused, at least in part, by Escape’s failure to give safety instructions. The trial court rejected this theory of liability when it concluded ballooning was an inherently risky activity and, as a result, Escape owed Grotheer no duty at all to protect her from injury. We conclude that ruling was too broad. Under Knight, [HN13] even an operator of an inherently risky activity owes a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize those inherent risks, if doing so would not fundamentally alter the activity. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317.) As we explain, instructing passengers on safe landing procedures takes little time and effort, and can minimize the risk of passenger injury in the event of a rough landing. [**25]
The primary assumption of risk doctrine is limited to those steps or safety measures that would have a deleterious effect on recreational activities that are, by nature, inherently dangerous. (Record v. Reason, supra, 73 Cal.App.4th at pp. 484-485; Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1162 [“The primary assumption of risk doctrine helps ensure that the threat of litigation and liability does not cause such recreational activities to be abandoned or fundamentally altered in an effort to eliminate or minimize inherent risks of injury”].) For example, an obligation to reduce a bumper car’s speed or the rider’s steering autonomy would impede the most appealing aspect of the ride–the ability to collide with others. (Id. at pp. 1157-1158.) “‘Indeed, who would want to ride a tapper car at an amusement park?'” (Id. at p. 1158.) Similarly, in the context of white water rafting, an obligation to design the rafts to minimize the “risk of striking objects both inside and outside the raft,” would transform the activity into “a trip down the giant slide at Waterworld.” (Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories (1995) 32 Cal.App.4th 248, 256 [38 Cal. Rptr. 2d 65].) Safety is important, but so is the freedom to engage in recreation and challenge one’s limits. The primary assumption of risk doctrine balances these competing concerns by absolving operators of activities with inherent risks from an obligation to protect [**26] their customers from those risks. [*1300]
(10) What the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not do, however, is absolve operators of any obligation to protect the safety of their customers. (Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at pp. 317-318.) As a general rule, where an operator can take a measure that would increase safety and minimize the risks of the activity without also altering the nature of the activity, the operator is required to do so. As the court explained in Knight, “in the sports setting, as elsewhere, the nature of the applicable duty or standard of care frequently varies with the role of the defendant whose conduct is at issue in a given case.” (Knight, at p. 318.) [HN14] When the defendant is the operator of an inherently risky sport or activity (as opposed to a coparticipant), there are “steps the sponsoring business entity reasonably should be obligated to take in order to minimize the risks without altering the nature of the sport [or activity].” (Id. at p. 317.)
Even before Knight, tort law imposed on operators a duty to take reasonable steps to minimize the inherent risks of their activity. (See Knight, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 317, citing Quinn v. Recreation Park Assn. (1935) 3 Cal.2d 725, 728-729 [46 P.2d 144]; Shurman v. Fresno Ice Rink (1949) 91 Cal.App.2d 469, 474-477 [205 P.2d 77].) Within our own appellate district we find precedent for imposing on hot air balloon operators and their pilots a duty of care to instruct passengers [**27] on how to position themselves for landing.
In Morgan v. Fuji Country USA, Inc. (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 127 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 249] (Morgan), Division One of our appellate district held a golf course owner had a duty to design its course to minimize the risk of being hit by a golf ball, despite the fact such a risk is inherent to golfing, because doing so was possible “‘without altering the nature of [golf].'” (Id. at p. 134.) Our colleagues explained this duty stemmed from the fact the defendant was the golf course owner. If, on the other hand, the plaintiff had sued the golfer who had hit the errant ball, the action would have been barred by the primary assumption of risk doctrine. (Id. at pp. 133-134.)
Nearly a decade after Morgan, the same court held a race organizer had a duty to minimize the risks of dehydration and hyponatremia5–risks inherent to marathons–by “providing adequate water and electrolyte fluids along the 26-mile course” because “[s]uch steps are reasonable and do not alter the nature of the sport [of marathon running].” (Saffro v. Elite Racing, Inc. (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 173, 179 [119 Cal. Rptr. 2d 497].) Faced with a similar situation in Rosencrans v. Dover Images, Ltd. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1072 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 22], this court held an owner of a motocross track had a duty to provide a system for signaling when riders have fallen in order to minimize the risk of collisions. (Id. at p. 1084.) Track owners could satisfy this duty by employing “caution flaggers,” [**28] or some similar device, which [*1301] would be relatively easy to implement and would not alter the nature of motocross. (Ibid.) As these cases demonstrate, the primary assumption of risk doctrine has never relieved an operator of its duty to take reasonable steps to minimize inherent risks without altering the nature of the activity.
5 A condition which occurs as a result of decreased sodium concentration in the blood.
(11) Having determined the primary assumption of risk doctrine does not absolve Escape of a duty to exercise reasonable care in all aspects of its operations, we turn to the existence and scope of the duty at issue here–safety instructions. (Castaneda v. Olsher (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1205, 1213 [63 Cal. Rptr. 3d 99, 162 P.3d 610] [HN15] [the existence and scope of a duty of care are questions of law for the trial court to determine in the first instance and the appellate court to independently review].) [HN16] Courts consider several factors in determining the existence and scope of a duty of care, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing the duty. (See, e.g., Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 675, fn. 5 [25 Cal. Rptr. 2d 137, 863 P.2d 207].)
[HN17] (12) Foreseeability is the primary factor in the duty analysis. (Pedeferri v. Seidner Enterprises (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 359, 366 [163 Cal. Rptr. 3d 55].) Our task in evaluating foreseeability “‘is not to decide whether a particular plaintiff’s injury was reasonably foreseeable [**29] in light of a particular defendant’s conduct, but rather to evaluate more generally whether the category of negligent conduct at issue is sufficiently likely to result in the kind of harm experienced that liability may appropriately be imposed.'” (Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764, 772 [122 Cal. Rptr. 3d 313, 248 P.3d 1170].) The existence and scope of a duty of care “is to be made on a more general basis suitable to the formulation of a legal rule” to be applied in a broad category of cases. (Id. at p. 773; see Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at pp. 342-343.)
In this case, the evidence is undisputed that giving passengers a brief presentation on safe landing procedures (such as the instructions Grotheer’s expert cites from the FAA Handbook) is a customary and standard practice in the ballooning industry. To paraphrase Grotheer’s expert, these safe landing procedures are: (1) stand in the appropriate area of the basket; (2) face toward or away from the direction of travel, but not sideways (to minimize the risk of a side-impact injury to the hips or knees); (3) place the feet and knees together, and bend the knees; (4) hold on tightly to the rope, handles, or other stabilizing device, and (5) stay inside the basket. Gallagher himself agreed safety instructions are crucial. He said he always explains what passengers can [**30] expect during launch and landing. In preparation for landing, he tells them to hold on to the handles, bend their knees, and not to exit the basket until told to do so. [*1302]
As to foreseeability, undisputed evidence in the record tells us that rough landings are a risk of ballooning and instructing passengers on proper landing positioning can reduce, though not eliminate, the likelihood of injury in the event the landing does not go smoothly. Additionally, we see no public policy reason why balloon operators should not be required to give safe landing instructions. (Huang, supra, 4 Cal.App.5th at p. 342.) As Kitchel, an experienced balloon pilot, owner, and operator, explained, “[a] detailed safety briefing takes no more than 5 minutes and is time well spent.” While “[m]any balloon landings are gentle, stand-up landings … the pilot should always prepare passengers for the possibility of a firm impact,” as rough landings can result in severe injuries.
(13) Escape contends the duty to provide safe landing instructions will be overly burdensome to balloon operators, citing the complexity of the preflight instructions operators of passenger-carrying airplanes are required to give under federal regulation. (See 14 C.F.R. § 121.571 (2017).) We find the concern misplaced. [**31] [HN18] The duty we recognize here does not compel anything so lengthy or complex as commercial airlines’ preflight instructions. It requires only that a commercial balloon operator provide a brief set of safe landing procedures, which Escape’s pilot said is already his custom. Safety instructions are a common practice among operators of recreational activities, and we do not believe requiring balloon operators to set aside a few moments before launch to advise passengers how to position themselves in the basket and what to do in the event of a rough landing will have a negative impact on the ballooning industry. (Cf. Nalwa, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 1161 [noting bumper car operator “enforce[d] various riding instructions and safety rules” before giving control of the car’s speed and steering to riders]; Ferrari v. Grand Canyon Dories, supra, 32 Cal.App.4th at p. 251 [operator of white water rafting tour gave plaintiff “safety instructions,” such as “where to sit, that it was necessary to hold onto the raft while navigating rapids and where to hold on, and how to react if thrown out of the raft into the water”].) Because the evidence supports Grotheer’s allegation Escape failed to give safety instructions of any kind to any of its passengers, we need not go into precisely what warnings are required, [**32] including whether a commercial balloon operator must ensure passengers with known language barriers understand the safety instructions.
We therefore conclude the court incorrectly applied the primary assumption of risk doctrine to absolve Escape of a duty to provide safe landing procedures. However, this conclusion does not end our analysis. We must also consider whether Grotheer’s negligence claim fails as a matter of law because she has not demonstrated the existence of a triable issue of fact on causation. (Coral Construction, Inc. v. City and County of San Francisco (2010) 50 Cal.4th 315, 336 [113 Cal. Rptr. 3d 279, 235 P.3d 947] [“‘[i]t is axiomatic that [HN19] we review the trial court’s rulings and not its reasoning'” and [*1303] “[t]hus, a reviewing court may affirm a trial court’s decision granting summary judgment for an erroneous reason”].)
D. Any Lack of Safety Instructions Was Not a Substantial Factor in Causing Grotheer’s Injury
[HN20] (14) “The elements of actionable negligence, in addition to a duty to use due care, [are] breach of that duty and a proximate or legal causal connection between the breach and plaintiff’s injuries.” (Onciano v. Golden Palace Restaurant, Inc. (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 385, 394 [268 Cal. Rptr. 96] (Onciano).) [HN21] (15) To be considered a proximate cause of an injury, the acts of the defendant must have been a “substantial factor” in contributing to the injury. (Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 969 [67 Cal. Rptr. 2d 16, 941 P.2d 1203].) Generally, a defendant’s conduct is a substantial [**33] factor if the injury would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct. (Ibid.) If the injury “‘would have happened anyway, whether the defendant was negligent or not, then his or her negligence was not a cause in fact, and of course cannot be the legal or responsible cause.'” (Toste v. CalPortland Construction (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 362, 370 [199 Cal. Rptr. 3d 522], quoting 6 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (10th ed. 2005) Torts, § 1185, p. 552.) As our high court has explained, “‘a force which plays only an “infinitesimal” or “theoretical” part in bringing about injury, damage, or loss is not a substantial factor.'” (Bockrath v. Aldrich Chemical Co. (1999) 21 Cal.4th 71, 79 [86 Cal. Rptr. 2d 846, 980 P.2d 398].)
[HN22] While proximate cause ordinarily is a question of fact, it may be decided as a question of law if “‘”‘under the undisputed facts, there is no room for a reasonable difference of opinion.'”‘” (Onciano, supra, 219 Cal.App.3d at p. 395.) As noted, once a defendant claiming the plaintiff cannot satisfy an element of his or her claim meets the initial burden of production, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a triable issue of fact. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at pp. 850-851.) When the evidence supports only one reasonable inference as to the cause of the plaintiff’s injury, courts should not engage in “unreasonable speculation that other contradictory evidence exists but was not adduced in the summary judgment proceedings.” (Constance B. v. State of California (1986) 178 Cal.App.3d 200, 211 [223 Cal. Rptr. 645] [dismissal [**34] of negligence claim was proper because no reasonable fact finder could find a causal nexus between defendant store owner’s improper lighting and the assault on plaintiff based on the evidence presented during the summary judgment proceedings].)
As explained in the previous part, the purpose of the safety instructions is to reduce injury in the event of rough landings. Here, however, the undisputed descriptions of the landing establish it was not merely rough, but rather [*1304] was a forceful and violent event–a crash. According to Boyd and Kristi Roberts, whose uncontested descriptions are the most detailed, the basket was descending “pretty fast” when it hit the fence with such force it “knocked it right apart,” taking out several fence sections. The basket then hit the ground “hard” and skidded for about 40 yards, becoming more and more horizontal as it was dragged, before coming to a stop on its side with Grotheer’s section on the bottom. Gallagher, the pilot, said the balloon had been descending more quickly than he had anticipated when the basket made a “hard landing, first on the fence and then on the ground.” Grotheer too described both impacts as “hard.” Both Grotheer and Kristi [**35] said they had been holding on to the handles (Kristi as tightly as she could) but were unable to keep from slipping or falling.
From these descriptions, we gather the crash landing was a jarring and violent experience, a “wild ride” so forceful that several passengers fell–even one who had tried desperately not to fall by gripping the basket handles as tightly as possible. (See Endicott v. Nissan Motor Corp. (1977) 73 Cal.App.3d 917, 926 [141 Cal. Rptr. 95] [“If the violence of a crash is the effective efficient cause of plaintiff’s injuries to the extent that it supersedes other factors … and makes them immaterial, plaintiff cannot recover”].) The accounts of the crash satisfied defendants’ burden of demonstrating the violence of the crash, not any lack of instructions, was the proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury. The burden then shifted to Grotheer to explain how things may have played out differently had everyone been instructed on proper body positioning during landing. She produced no such evidence. Instead, she said at her deposition she believed everyone had in fact been holding on to the basket handles during the descent. While one could speculate that Kristi had been the only passenger holding the handles correctly and the woman who fell into Grotheer [**36] had employed an improper grip (say, using only one hand or not holding “tight,” as the FAA Handbook instructs), Grotheer presented no evidence to support such a theory. As a result, she did not meet her burden of demonstrating an evidentiary dispute about whether the provision of instructions would have produced a different outcome.
(16) We conclude any failure to instruct on Escape’s part was not a proximate cause of Grotheer’s injury, and we affirm the grant of summary judgment on that ground. Given our holding that defendants are not liable for negligence, it is unnecessary to review the trial court’s ruling on Wilson Creek’s vicarious liability or its ruling on defendants’ liability waiver defense.6
6 Defendants asked us to review the ruling on their affirmative defense in the event we reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 906, which allows a respondent, without appealing from a judgment, to seek appellate review (at the court’s discretion) of any ruling that “substantially affects the rights of a party,” for “the purpose of determining whether or not the appellant was prejudiced by the error … upon which he relies for reversal.” Because we do not reverse the grant of summary judgment, we need not reach the issue of defendants’ affirmative defense.
We affirm the judgment. The parties shall bear their costs on appeal.
Ramirez, P. J., and Codrington, J., concurred.
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.
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
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.
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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
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
- THE PARTIES
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.
- 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).)
- FRIDAY APRIL 24
- 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.)
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
“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]
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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
U.S. District Court Judge
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