Scuba Diving School Stays Above Water

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Booth v. Bowen (U.S. Virgin Islands-UNPUBLISHED)
(Federal Court Enforces Waiver in Favor of Scuba Diving School; Denied Claims of Heirs Suing on Behalf of Novice Scuba Diver Who Died While Completing the School’s Introductory Course.)

This case involved an action brought by the heirs of a deceased scuba diver. The decedent participated in a novice diving course in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The deceased had no diving experience. Before participating, he signed a “Questionnaire” which was titled “Liability Release and Assumption of Risk Agreement.” The school argued that the language of the agreement relieved them from negligence liability. The plaintiff-heirs argued that the waiver should be unenforceable on public policy grounds because the agreement improperly barred the claims of heirs and family member of the deceased. The plaintiffs contested the fact that the agreement signed by the decedent precluded an undetermined class of individuals (heirs and family members) from filing suit.

The waiver was in all capital letters and stated that the defendants were released “from all liability or responsibility whatsoever for personal injury, property damage or wrongful death, however caused, including but not limited to the negligence of [the defendants], whether passive or active.” Other paragraphs of the waiver further specified and made it abundantly clear that this release prevented the defendants’ responsibility for any injury, death or other damages to decedent’s family or other heirs. The Court looked to other states’ laws which held that the word “negligence” in a waiver is sufficient to insulate a party from negligence liability.

Using the “plain meaning rule,” the Third Circuit Court held that the language was clear and unambiguous. Additionally, the agreement was validly signed by the decedent. Therefore, despite a Virgin Islands wrongful death statute which allows heirs the right to recover for their pecuniary losses caused by their decedent’s death, the Court decided not to disturb freedom of contract principles by altering the express agreement. The Court found no case law supporting the plaintiffs’ public policy argument. The court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

NOTE: The ability to waive claims on behalf of heirs and family members exists in the majority of jurisdictions. The inexperience of the decedent did not (and should not) play a role in determining the enforceability of the waiver and release. So long as an agreement is written clearly and unambiguously, the court should generally not need to look beyond the four corners of the document.

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