Florida Skydiving Accident Lawyers
Skydiving is an extreme aerial sport that inherently exposes its participants to the risks of injury or death. If conducted by appropriately trained professionals, current on their jumping activity, the risks of the sport can be mitigated. According to Skydiving Magazine, approximately 30 to 35 skydiving fatalities occur each year out of an estimated two million parachute jumps.
An analysis of skydiving accidents shows that a majority of fatal or serious injuries occur though human error – legitimate mistakes in judgment or intentional poor risk management control. Occasionally, equipment fails or is improperly packed, but this is less common than one might expect. Some skydiving injuries and fatalities are related to operation of the jump plane or an aircraft accident. Negligence suits from injuries generally arise against the skydiving company, the individual instructor involved, the parachute rigger or the aircraft pilot. Product liability actions can arise from equipment failures or aircraft failures.
The Skydiving Waiver
It has been said that a waiver “is only as good as the paper it’s printed on.” A common misconception is that these documents will have little to no legal value in the event of an accident. This is not true. Instead, courts have generally taken a strict approach when reviewing indemnity and release agreements in high-risk activities such as skydiving. Most agreements seek to limit the operator’s liability in negligence. Waivers exist for a reason, especially in high-risk activities, and courts are inclined to uphold the bargained-for agreement in many instances.
The law requires that a waiver be clear and specific as to the dangers of the risks being entered into and the limitations of the operator’s liability. Because skydiving is an inherently dangerous activity, simple negligence will normally not be enough to rise to the level of an actionable negligence claim. For example, in one case, where an instructor acted to deploy a student’s parachute when it failed to open, the operator was not held liable for injuries sustained by the student when the instructor was able to deploy a backup chute and save the participant’s life. In such cases, public policy likely plays a role: the courts don’t want to create a legal environment where an instructor would allow the student to die, rather than save them and face litigation.
Gross negligence is a high legal standard. It is a conscious and voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care to the extent that the activity is likely to cause foreseeable grave injury or harm to persons, property or both. Gross negligence involves a blatant disregard to legal duties. This standard exceeds any degree of mere inattention and practically requires an objective aim to harm an individual.
An example of gross negligence in a high-risk activity like skydiving include intentionally taking off one’s parachute in free fall or jumping out of the airplane with no parachute on at all and trying to place it on during free fall. It takes an intentional action of risk so egregious that even a very careless person would have prevented the risk.
In certain cases, gross negligence may serve to repudiate a liability waiver.
Repudiating a Liability Waiver
- A liability waiver can be challenged on the basis of the following four elements: Specificity: A waiver should sufficiently detail the risks of exposure to the activity.
- Capacity: There is no minimum age required by any aviation regulatory agency in the United States. Still, most skydive operations will not allow a person under 18 – the standard age of majority and legal capacity to enter into contracts – to participate. Beyond the safety of moderate maturity at the age of 18, capacity to enter a contract is necessary to make a contract enforceable. If a minor could not understand what he was you were doing when he entered into the contract, it may be voidable. Persons with mental incapacities, who are intoxicated or who do not fully understand what they are agreeing to do may be able to claim incapacity.
- Fraud: If consent to the waiver was induced by lies or duress, it may be voidable. Duress has been sometimes held in cases when the jump plane is already loading passengers in the background and the individual is asked to sign.
- Unconscionability: Where the contract is grossly unfair and favors a side with a significantly advantageous bargaining position, it may be invalid. It is not sufficient that the party has a plane, parachute and instructor and you want to jump out of it.
With over four decades of experience in aviation litigation, Podhurst Orseck has represented clients in skydiving and other aviation mishaps. If you have been injured in a skydiving accident, our attorneys can help you investigate the claim, repudiate a waiver and develop a strategy to secure recovery.