Louisiana Appellate Court Affirms Ruling Against a Recreational Boat Passenger
On February 28, 2023, the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, in the case Prange v. Posey, affirmed a ruling in favor of a pleasure craft owner and operator and against a passenger injured when the boat hit a yacht's wake. The opinion is timely because it addresses the duties pleasure craft owners and operators owe to passengers.
On July 16, 2016, plaintiff, Gabrielle Prange, was injured while a passenger on a recreational boat owned by Ernest Posey and operated by David Forely. The group of eight was on vacation in southeast Alabama and had enjoyed the pool, beach and a restaurant before getting on the boat to go knee boarding. After knee boarding, Defendants decided to go into the Gulf of Mexico through Perdido Pass. As the group was going through Perdido Pass, a yacht approached from the opposite direction, which generated a large wake. The pleasure craft approached the yacht's wake at an angle to reduce the wake's impact. Forely warned the passengers to hold on while the boat crossed the yacht's wake. Plaintiff was located in the bow seat and lifted from her seat when the yacht's wake reached the bow. Plaintiff landed on her tailbone and fractured her spine. No other passengers were raised into the air or were otherwise injured. Plaintiff sued Forely and Posey for negligence in Louisiana Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans. Following a bench trial, the Court found that Defendants owed a duty to Plaintiff. However, the Court found that Defendants did not breach the duty owed to plaintiff and were not liable for Plaintiff's injuries. Plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, Plaintiff argued among other things that the trial court ignored specific duties Defendants owed to her under the federal maritime Inland Navigational Rules. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal instructed that to prevail on a maritime negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove (1) the defendant owed a duty to plaintiff, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) the breach actually and proximately caused the plaintiff's injury, and (4) the plaintiff sustained an injury. The Fourth Circuit examined the evidence and found ample testimony concerning boater safety and the duties a vessel owner and operator owe to passengers. The appellate court held that the trail court correctly considered all of the relevant factors including expert testimony in determining that Defendants did not breach the duty of reasonable care owed to Plaintiff. Plaintiff also argued that as a guest passenger she was entitled to a presumption that required the vessel operator, Forely, to prove he was not at fault. The Fourth Circuit held plaintiff's argument for a presumption was without merit because the trial court did not evaluate whether Plaintiff was contributory negligent for her injuries.
C. Why Is This Important
- Injuries sustained in connection with a recreational boating incident can be severe.
- Recreational boat owners and operators owe their passengers a duty of reasonable care.
- A well-qualified maritime liability expert can help a party demonstrate the duties a vessel owner and/or operator owe to their passengers and why the actions taken by them under the circumstances were reasonable or not reasonable.
- Plaintiff might have fared better if she had pursed a negligence claim against the owner and/or operator of the yacht that created the large wake.
W. Brett Mason is a Member at Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann L.L.C. and advises companies doing business in Louisiana in their desire to evaluate and manage maritime risk by counseling them on changes in law and protecting their interests should a dispute arise.