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Maritime Law--Defeating Liability Waivers Resulting in $12M Settlement

In the case of Adkins v. Big Dipper Charters, et al., Case No. 14-cv-10030-KlNG, the plaintiffs alleged the Florida Keys Dive Center caused the Adkins family economic and non-economic damages, including pain, suffering and past and future lost income. The Florida Keys Dive Center and its boat operator Big Dipper Charters Inc., along with the boat captain, owners and dive master, were named in the suit. The lawsuit alleged the dive master told the father and son team to "dive, dive, dive," then failed to communicate to the boat captain that there were divers in the water. The captain put the boat in reverse, and the propellers struck a boy and his father, causing severe traumatic injuries.
As expected, the defense argued their clients were protected by liability waivers signed by the father for both himself and his son that are common in dive boat operator forms. The plaintiffs argued the liability release forms signed were void because they violated several provisions of federal and state law. The plaintiffs set out several state and federal stator violations undertaken by the defendants which all ultimately boiled down to failure to have a proper lookout.
The defendants also asserted a limitation of liability defense. This limits a boat owner's liability to the value of the vessel, post incident. In this case the vessel had a value of about $250,000. The plaintiffs argued that the limitation of liability did not apply because the vessel was not seaworthy, which is also defined generally as a vessel that is fit for its intended purpose. The plaintiffs were participating in a drift dive, where divers follow the current. However it was alleged that the dive master and boat captain had no method of communication other than yelling or stomping on the deck to signal. Thus, it was argued that the combination of drift diving without a method of communication and without a direct line of sight to the back of the vessel created a situation where the captain decided to maneuver the vessel around without knowing there were people in the water, which ultimately lead to the accident.
The Daily Business Review reports that the settlement was reached during a 15-hour mediation. Reportedly, the son will receive $11 million of the settlement and his father will receive $1 million. The settlement now has to be approved by the court, given the son is a minor.
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