Ask a Maritime Attorney: Do volunteer instructors face liability if a kid gets hurt?

Question

            I have two young children who participate in youth sailing activities at our yacht club in Northern California. I love getting them involved in sailing and in the yachting community, but I have increasing concerns about the lack of professionalism in these programs. The boats often have broken, or missing parts and I am not convinced that the volunteer instructors really know what they are doing. What kind of liability can they face if someone gets hurt? Does the fact that the students are all young kids make a difference?

Answer

I should first note to our reader that, if he is this concerned about the safety of his club’s youth sailing program, he should take his kids out of the program and talk to club leadership about his concerns. Asking me about liability can wait.

His questions about liability are raised in anticipation of something breaking or someone getting hurt. “Liability” in this context refers to the process of holding someone responsible for their negligent acts or omissions. So, let’s start with an understanding of the legal elements of a claim for negligence.

An evaluation of negligence starts with the establishment of a “duty of care,” by asking whether a hypothetical reasonable person in the same situation would have done anything differently. This is a complicated analysis that often requires the assistance of expert witnesses.

The actions of the person facing liability are then balanced against the actions of the person who was hurt, looking through the same lens. Were they also negligent? Under both California Law and General Maritime Law, liability for negligence may be offset under the doctrine of “comparative fault,” where a judge or jury may assign a percentage of fault to the injured party if they were also negligent. We may find, however, that an assignment of some amount of fault to an injured student is unlikely in the context of a youth sailing program.

In evaluating an injury in a youth sailing program such as this, we also need to consider the relationship between the young student and the adult instructor. Under such a relationship, the instructor is usually in a position of trust over the student, which may give rise to a higher duty of care under the “Special Relationship Doctrine.”

When evaluating a negligence case, the general duty of care usually does not include an affirmative duty to act for the protection of another. This may change, however, if the person stands in some special relationship to the person who is foreseeably at risk. The Special Relationship Doctrine carves out an exception to the general rule that there is no duty to act for the protection of a third party. The doctrine recognizes that certain socially recognized relationships exist which constitute the basis for an increased legal duty. A youth sailing program will probably give rise to such a relationship.

The comparison of a person’s behavior against a hypothetical duty of care will look at a very wide range of activities. For example, our reader was concerned about the skills of the instructors, but also about the physical condition of the boats. These two issues can merge under the Special Relationship Doctrine if, for example, a student is injured because of a broken or poorly maintained part of the boat.

The bottom line in response to our reader’s question is that everyone, including instructors in a youth sailing program, may be held liable for their failure to meet a standard of care in almost any activity, where that failure damages or injures someone.

 

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

 

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com,  or via email at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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