A federal appeals court gave limited reprieve to a boat rental company defending itself in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from a 2009 boating accident in which two couples died and one other couple survived with injuries. The question was whether the boat rental company owed a duty to warn its customers of potentially inclement weather that day and secondly whether it had a duty to warn about the weather exposure limitations of the vessel they rented.
In re: Aramark Sports, the company, in anticipation of being sued by the victims and their survivors, filed a petition in federal court under the Limitation of Liability Act, which allows boat owners in federal navigable waters to seek a ruling that either exonerates or limits their liability on the basis of the vessel’s capacity or value of the boat and freight. So if a claim demonstrates negligence, the burden then shifts to the owner to prove he or she had a lack of knowledge of unseaworthiness. If the owner meets this burden, damages are capped at the value of the vessel – after the collision (which, if it sinks, is zero). If the owner does not, the case can proceed with no limitations. Such cases would then proceed in a state court.
Estates of the two decedent couples responded with claims of wrongful death and negligence. The district court held a bench trial just on the issue of limitation – meaning the issues of gross negligence, damages and apportionment of fault would be heard later. The court ruled that negligence had at least in part caused the accident and that this negligence was within the knowledge of the boat owner, and therefore it would not exonerate the company from liability, nor would it grant its petition for limitation.
Here, it’s important to spell out some key facts of the boating accident. The three couples all were on vacation and went to the boating rental office to procure a boat for the following day. One of those signed a contract to rent a vessel classified in the owner’s manual as being a Design Category C boat. That meant it had a limited ability to withstand wind and see or water conditions. Specifically, it had a maximum wind speed of 31 mph. That didn’t mean the operator and/or passengers would survive if the boat were exposed to these conditions – only the most experienced operators and crew may be able to operate a boat safely under those conditions. The manual warned users not to take chances. But the boaters never saw that manual, nor were they warned of the boat’s design classification or limitation.
They were given a weather report the night before indicating the weather was forecasted to include breezes of up to 23 mph and gusts of up to 37 mph. The next morning, when the couples arrived to pick up the boat, the weather had called for sustained winds of up to 35 mph and gusts as high as 55 mph. The rental boat instructor told the couples about the weather channel on the boat’s radio, but didn’t give them an update on the forecast – and they didn’t request one.
The group made it to their destination safely. On their return trip, however, the water got choppy. They stopped to refuel, and there is disputed testimony that a marina worker there offered to let them stay due to the rough waters. In either case, they headed back to the marina to return the boat. The water was “bumpy,” according to one of the survivors. Then it got “rough.” Then, it was, “ruthless.” Water began to fill the boat. A mayday call went out. One couple was able to make it to some rocks nearby, from which they were later rescued. However, the other four passengers were killed.
What the Seventh Circuit decided was that the boat owner did not have a duty to monitor the weather or to provide forecasts to individuals who were renting the boat. However, the issue of “knowledge” was still up in the air as far as whether the boat company owed a duty to inform the renters of the Design Classification of the boat, and to specifically warn them of its limitations. That question was remanded back to the lower court.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
In re: Aramark Sports, Aug. 1, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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