Water sports injury cases can be legally complex. In many cases, liability for negligence in a boating accident operates in much the same way as it does in a car accident. If you negligently cause an injury to another party, you will be responsible for the injuries and damages you cause. However, liability in boating and other water sports accidents is not always as straightforward in practice. There are two primary considerations that can limit legal recourse for accidents on the water in California. The first is the legal concept of assumption of risk. The second is the overlapping of the different legal systems that govern incidents on the water.
Assumption of the Risk
The doctrine of assumption of the risk works to prevent an injured person from collecting damages for an accident if that person voluntarily undertook the risk of injury inherent in the activity. We frequently take risks upon ourselves. For example, driving a car carries a known risk of injury that we all implicitly accept every time we strap on a seat belt; but the assumption of the risk doctrine is not so broad. Instead, its application is reserved for those cases in which the primary responsibility for an injury can fairly be laid at the feet of the injured party because of their willing participation in a sporting activity.
For example, football players are hardly in a position to sue the other team for a knee injury incurred during the regular course of a game. Such injuries are an ordinary risk of the sport, and players are deemed to assume the risk of incurring this kind of injury. The same could not be said, however, for a football player who is hit by a car negligently being driven across the field during a game. A car accident is not part of the risk usually associated with playing football. Nor is the risk that a coparticipant will intentionally injure another or engage in conduct that is so reckless as to be totally outside of the range of the ordinary activity involved in the sport. In these instances, the doctrine of assumption of the risk will not act as a barrier to recovery.
California courts will apply the assumption of the risk doctrine when a participant is engaged in a sport or recreational activity for enjoyment or thrill that requires physical exertion as well as elements of skill, and involves a challenge containing a risk of injury. The rule is designed to encourage enthusiastic participation and to avoid impairing the competitive nature of the sport.
On the water
The doctrine of assumption of the risk is often applied to water sports accidents. Courts have held that people who participate in sail boating, motor boating, waterskiing, jet skiing, river rafting, tubing behind a motorboat and even sport fishing have assumed the ordinary risks of injury inherent in these sports. But the doctrine has been held not to apply to a passenger in a motorboat or to people engaged other passive, non-sporting, activities.
As in the football example above, not every risk of injury is inherent in the sport. For example, getting rope burn while trying to get up on a wakeboard is the kind of thing you could expect. On the other hand, being run over by a drunk and reckless boater is not the kind of risk you assume as a wake boarder.
As a defense
Assumption of the risk is an affirmative defense that a defendant in a personal injury lawsuit may assert to avoid liability for otherwise negligent acts. Under California law, the application of the doctrine requires a legal conclusion that the defendant owes no legal duty to protect the plaintiff from the particular risk of harm that caused the injury. The issue is decided as a matter of law; the court must determine the existence and scope of a defendants duty of care. Application of the assumption of risk doctrine is very fact dependent and the courts have not addressed all of the potential activities that could be subject to the doctrine.
Overlapping Systems of Law
In addition to the legal considerations in any personal injury case, and the doctrine of assumption of the risk discussed above, water sports accidents have another layer of potential complexity; theyre governed by multiple legal systems, some with dramatically different rules of liability.
Also called admiralty law, maritime law is a body of law that developed around water based commercial activity. According to the United States Constitution, jurisdiction over admiralty law is given exclusively to the federal courts. However, in an added twist, a clause of federal law allows state courts to hear some lawsuits sounding in maritime law.
Maritime law doesnt always deal with liability in the same way as California state law. As a result, if maritime law is determined to apply to a water sport injury, the outcome can vary dramatically from the state law based outcome that the parties might expect.
In addition to the multiple legal systems that might apply to water based accidents, there are also a number of federal and state regulations that influence liability. For example, both federal and state laws govern the safe operation of tour boats, parks regulations control things like waterway speed limits and routes, and product liability laws may govern potential equipment defects. Here are a few things to bear in mind.
Passenger Capacity (and more)
In most cases, public transportation that operates on the water, whether that means a tour boat or a cruise ship, must comply with a number of safety regulations. These can include the maximum number of passengers, minimum number of safety devices (lifeboats or flotation devices, for example), maximum speed, qualifications for the captain and crew, hours of operation, required radio equipment, working safety gear, emergency supplies; the list goes on and on.
Plans, routes, and notification
Beyond the functionality of the crew and equipment, certain areas are under regulation with regard to the routes watercraft may take. Sometimes this just means that a crew must report the planned route. At other times, certain routes are off limits, perhaps because of temporarily dangerous conditions, like tides, or because of other considerations, including environmental concerns. In still other cases, local custom or convention dictates certain routes or behaviors, such as a right hand swing around a given island or the use of a safety flag for downed skiers, all of which might come into play in a personal injury case.
Complex area of the law
There are numerous overlapping laws, regulations, and legal theories that might impact a water sports injury case; and there are an even greater number of factual settings that can change the outcome dramatically. Because of these issues, it is highly recommended that you seek the advice of an experienced attorney anytime you are dealing with an injury on the water.
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