I'm on Boat: Liability Waiver Form Void for Injuries on Vessel

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 04, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We occasionally enjoy bouncing out our frustration over bad appellate rulings at the trampoline park, which is great fun as soon as we forget about the electronic liability waiver form we had to complete to get in the door.

That waiver says jumping is an inherently dangerous activity, and that we won't hold the facility liable for injuries resulting from things like exposed springs, or lack of proper equipment, safety measures, or supervision. We grudgingly sign such forms, knowing that a judge would guffaw if we ever tried to challenge their validity. (Stupid heightened understanding of the law.)

But if the trampoline park was on a cruise ship, and we were challenging the liability waiver form in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, we might prevail.

In an unpublished opinion released in December, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that a cruise line cannot limit its liability for injuries caused by the negligence or fault of its employees, even when the injury stems from an inherently dangerous activity.

The plaintiff, Charlene Johnson, fractured her ankle while participating in FlowRider, a simulated surfing attraction aboard Royal Caribbean Cruises' Oasis of the Seas vessel. Johnson signed an electronic liability waiver form before starting the simulation.

Mike, a Royal employee and FlowRider instructor, told Johnson to stand on the FlowRider body board during the simulation, which was in violation of Royal's safety guidelines for the FlowRider attraction. (The guidelines specifically state that the boards used for the body boarding portion should only be used while lying down.)

Johnson filed a complaint, claiming that she suffered an injury due to Royal's negligence. A district court granted summary judgment based on the waiver Johnson signed. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the district court decision, finding that federal law precludes the "owner ... or agent of a vessel transporting passengers between ... a port in the United States and a port in a foreign country" from including in a "contract a provision limiting the liability of the owner ... or agent for personal injury or death caused by the negligence or fault of the owner or the owner's employees or agents."

The Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that the same liability waiver form could have been binding for land-based activities, but the law is clear that such waivers are void when applied to activities on sea-faring vessels. While this, again, is a non-binding opinion, you can use it as guidance when deciding whether to take a personal injury case in which the claimant has executed a waiver for the inherently dangerous activity that led to her injury.

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