Now, with a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in the case of In re: Aramark Sports, one key question has been answered, but another still remains.
In a 3-0 decision, the appellate panel ruled the boat rental company didn’t have a responsibility to warn boaters of the weather conditions that day. A forecast had been provided to them by the boat rental company the night before. On the day of, the group of six were told how to access the weather radio on the vessel. However, they weren’t told of the updated forecast, which indicated sustained winds of between 25 and 35 mph and gusts of up to 55 mph.
But what they also didn’t know – and what the court ruled must still be decided – is whether the boat company had a duty to inform its customers of the weather limitations of the vessel. The vessel they rented could only withstand a maximum wind speed of 31 mph. According to the manufacturer, even that would be a stretch, as only the “most experienced” captain and crew could safely navigate the vessel through water facing winds of that speed.
This was back in April 2009, and three couples – husbands all retired police officers from South Florida – set out for Rainbow Bridge on Lake Powell, near the Utah-Arizona line. They reached their destination without issue. However, on the way back, the wind kicked up. The waters got rough. The captain called out a “mayday.” The ship sunk.
One couple – husband and wife – managed to reach a rock pile, where the clung to the side until they were rescued. However, the four others lost their lives.
Anticipating there would be a wrongful death lawsuit, the boating company, Aramark, filed a petition in federal court that sought to limit its liability. Specifically, a maritime law called the Limitation of Liability Act, allows boat owners to be exonerated from liability or have their liability capped at the value of the boat and its freight (in this case, $0, as the vessel had sunk). However, in order to claim this protection, the company would have to prove it did not commit negligence and there were no conditions of unseaworthiness that caused the accident.
The estates of the four killed filed counter-claims, alleging injury and wrongful death.
Initially, a U.S. District Judge two years ago ruled Aramark’s petition was denied because:
- The forecast called for high winds;
- The owner’s manual to the boat indicated the boat was unsafe in wind speeds exceeding 31 mph;
- The boating company knew or should have known the vessel would sink, resulting in injury or death;
- The company had a duty to prevent voters from going out onto the lake in that boat.
The 10th Circuit considered defendant’s appeal, and reversed in part.
The company argued the alleged negligent acts were the failure of the boaters to get a weather forecast before they felt, failure to watch the weather during their journey, failure to wear a life vest and failure to take shelter once the weather took a turn.
The court ruled the company did not have a responsibility to warn the boaters of the weather. However, the panel declined to find, as a matter of law, that the boaters would have acted the same if they had been warned of the wind speed limitations of the boat. That question was remanded back to the district court for further consideration.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
In re: Aramark Sports, Aug. 1, 2016, South Carolina Boating Accident Lawyer Blog
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