A federal appeals court ruled recently that a boating company didn’t have a responsibility to keep an eye on the weather and offer an updated forecast to six vacationers from Florida whose rental boat sank seven years ago, leading to four deaths. But the 3-0 ruling in the case of In re: Aramark Sports wasn’t a total win for the boating company. That’s because justices remanded the case on the question of whether the firm was negligent in its failure to warn the boat renters of the wind speed limitations of the rented vessel’s design.
The boat, a Baja 202 Islander, was a 20-foot vessel that had the capacity to carry eight people. Court records indicate the manual for that boat revealed it was able to withstand maximum wind speeds of just 31 mph. That manual also stipulates that the maximum noted wave height and wind speed for that category doesn’t necessarily mean the boat is safe at that speed or that passengers will survive if the vessel encounters those conditions. In fact, the manual indicates that only highly experienced boaters will have the ability to operate safely the boat in those conditions.
But this was not information that was passed on to the vacationers – three retired police officers from St. Petersburg, FL and their wives – in Utah. When they met with steady winds of 35 mph. At times, gusts hurled past them at 55 mph. Their boat began taking on water. They issued a mayday as the boat sank in Lake Powell. One couple made it to some jagged rocks, where they clung until rescuers found them. However, the other two couples perished in the sudden storm.
Anticipating a wrongful death lawsuit by the families of the four who died, Aramark Sports, owner of the vessel, filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, seeking reprieve under the Limitation of Liability Act. This is a federal act that would allow the company to reduce its liability if it could show it met its admiralty principles of duty. The maritime law allows boat owners to be either exonerated of liability or have it capped based on how much the vessel was worth (which is calculated after the incident, and since the boat sank, that would be $0). In order to be availed of this protection, the company would need to prove it did not commit negligent acts and no conditions of unseaworthiness caused the boating accident about which the boat owner knew. Specifically, the company needed to show it didn’t have a responsibility to keep the couples updated on the weather forecast and that it didn’t have to provide them information about the limitations of the boat they were renting.
The estates of the decedents then filed counterclaims seeking damages for negligence and wrongful death in the boating accident.
The company argued that even if it hadn’t been negligent, it was the renters’ own negligence that was the superseding cause of the incident. Specifically, it asserted the couple:
- Failed to obtain the weather forecast before leaving and to obtain updates while they were out;
- Failed to wear life vests;
- Failed to monitor the worsening conditions or act on them;
- Failed to seek safe harbor.
Initially, the U.S. District Judge rejected the company’s petition in 2014, finding that because high winds were forecasted and the boat wasn’t safe for speeds exceeding 31 mph, the company could reasonably have foreseen the vessel wasn’t seaworthy, leading to the injury or death of its passengers. Because the incident was foreseeable, the judge ruled, the company had a duty to prevent the boaters from heading out that morning.
The 10th Circuit reversed in part. The court found the boat owner didn’t have a duty to give the couples an updated weather report the morning they headed out. However, there was still a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the owner owed a duty to reveal the boat’s limitations to the renters. The case was remanded for further proceedings on this point.
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In re: Aramark Sports , Aug. 1,2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit
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