Can Crewmembers Ignore Race Protest Hearing Decisions and Sue a Boat Owner?

I am a regular crewmember on a 40-foot racing yacht. Prior to this year’s Newport-to-Ensenada Race, I had a discussion with the owner of the boat about the racing rules in general — and, specifically, about whether an individual crewmember is bound by the findings of a protest committee in the event that the crewman is injured. In other words, can I sue the boat owner and/or another boat if I am injured during a race?
Our reader is referring to the “Racing Rules of Sailing” (RRS), updated and published every four years by the International Sailing Federation. These rules govern almost all organized yacht racing in the world. In this country, the rules are administered by the United States Sailing Association (commonly referred to as US Sailing) and by the organizers of individual races and regattas.

Courts in this country have held that when racers participate in a yacht race for which published rules set out the conditions of participation, a private contract results between the participants, which requires them to adhere to those rules.

Most experienced racers have participated in at least one protest hearing, where the race committee hears evidence concerning a racing incident and assigns fault to the offending parties by application of the RRS. The rules require the parties to resolve their disputes in this manner — and, in fact, Rule 3 expressly prohibits a participant from taking a dispute to court for the purpose of assigning fault. A protest hearing, therefore, amounts to a form of binding contractual arbitration.

Rule 3 also provides that, by participating in a race conducted under the RRS, each competitor and boat owner agrees to be governed by the rules. This goes to our reader’s question about whether an individual crewmember is bound by the findings of a protest committee.

Looking to the rules first, the language of the RRS expressly provides that the rules govern both “competitors” and “boat owners.” The rules are intended to apply to everyone who participates in the race — and since the rules are published and readily available, all participants will be deemed to have knowledge of them.

Further, courts have held that a person may under some circumstances be bound to an arbitration agreement, even if they never sign anything. To my knowledge, no court has ruled on the specific question of whether a racing crewmember is required to adhere to the findings of a protest committee, but there have been a number of decisions rendered by courts that are close to this scenario, and it is logical to extend those cases to a crewmember’s case.

Courts will require a crewmember to adhere to the requirements of the RRS under two different legal theories.

First, a party may be bound to the terms of an agreement if he or she receives a direct benefit from the agreement. The right to participate in the race will likely be deemed to provide such a benefit.

Second, a person will be bound to an agreement if their agent enters into an agreement on their behalf. In the context of a race, the boat owner will probably be deemed to be the agent of his crew when he enters the race.

We should note finally that a protest hearing is a form of arbitration for the determination of fault only. The committee will not make any ruling regarding any claim for damages. RRS Rule 68, as amended in this country by US Sailing, specifically prohibits a protest committee from adjudicating a claim for damages, and further provides that such a claim is subject to the jurisdiction of the courts. This means that once a protest committee has made a decision regarding allocation of fault in an incident, an injured party must file a lawsuit to determine whether, and in what amount, compensation should be awarded.

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