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. Continue reading