Taner Oran v. Fair Wind Sailing Inc

[B]Case Name: [/B]Taner Oran v. Fair Wind Sailing, Inc.
[B]Date Decided: [/B]November 23, 2009
[B]Court: [/B]District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John
[B]Judge: [/B]Judge Buckwalter
[B]Citation: [/B]2009 WL 4349321 [B]Background:
[/B]Plaintiff, Taner Oran, brought this action against Fair Wind Sailing Inc. and BFM Sailing , as a result of injuries he sustained when he slipped and fell on bench cushions aboard a 45-foot catamaran owned by BFM Sailing and operated by Fair Wind.

Oran called Fair Wind to ask about a sailing class they offered.* Oran agreed to enroll in the class and Fair Wind sent release forms to Oran. Both defendants contend that no one is allowed to participate in any of Fair Wind’s classes without executing the release agreement and terms and conditions agreement, both sent to Oran.

Oran refused to sign the release, and upon attempting to board the [I]Hound Dog[/I], Oran was denied. Oran then asked Mr. Bello, Fair Wind’s president, to which Mr. Bello said no, that he could not board without providing the signed release form. Oran then handed Mr. Bello a piece of paper and was permitted to board the vessel.

Oran, however contended that he was not prevented from boarding nor was he told he had to sign a release. Additionally, according to Oran, he did not present a release to Mr. Bello.

According to Oran, he and his wife arrived in St. Thomas and was allowed to board with his wife upon asking the captain. Once the sailing program was underway, Oran claimed he performed “traditional seaman duties” consisting of “assisting in the actual sailing, navigating, operation and maintenance of the vessel” as instructed by the Captain. After securing a hatch, Oran slipped on the ship’s bench cushion and fell.

Oran brought an action for negligence for failure to have proper fastening devices or failing to warn of the bench cushions’ condition rendering the [I]Hound Dog [/I]unseaworthy.

Both defendants have filed Motions for Summary Judgment.

[/B]Did this Court grant defendants motion for summary judgment?

[/B]In deciding the Motion this Court determined (1) what law to apply to evaluate the validity of the Release, (2) whether the release is valid (under that law), and (3) if it is valid, what effect it has on the negligence and unseaworthiness claims to both Fair Wind and BFM.

This Court found that this case invoked admiralty jurisdiction and required the application of federal admiralty law. First, the incident occurred aboard the sailing vessel in navigable waters off the coast of St. Thomas. Also, this Court found that ocean-going sailing schools are engaged in maritime commerce because they provide recreational services on navigable waters. Moreover, this Court found, that the [I]Hound Dog [/I]was engaged in sufficient maritime activity because it was either sailing or docked in navigable waters.

Second, this Court determined whether Oran signed the release. This Court found that Oran did in fact admit to signing the release, and as such, this Court then determined whether the release was valid under federal maritime law.

This Court found that the release was valid because Oran failed to present any evidence or fraud. Oran, however, further argued that the release was invalid.

First, Oran claimed the release was ambiguous. This Court found that the release was unambiguous and contained explicit language providing that Oran assumed all responsibility of any injury he might sustain and that he agreed to the release from liability Fair Wind and its officers, agents, or employees.

Second, Oran contended that his failure to read or understand the release created a genuine issue of material fact. However, this Court found that whether Oran understood the release prior to signing it, was not a material factual issue and had no bearing on the release’s enforceability.

Third, Oran argued that the release did not protect the vessel owner, BFM. This Court however, found the release was effective to BFM because Fair Wind served as BFM’s agent in preparing and requiring the release. The Court also recognized that seaman’s contracts are held under a greater level of scrutiny under general maritime law. However, despite the higher scrutiny, the release remained effective because Oran acted freely and fairly executed the release. Moreover, Oran had obtained a Masters degree in Political Science.

Finally, Oran asserted that he and his wife were passengers and that they were being transported within the meaning of 46 U.S.C. §30509, of the Jones Act. This section states that the owner/master/manager/agent of a vessel [I]transporting passengers[/I] cannot include a regulation or contract a provision limiting the liability of the owner for personal injury or death caused by the negligence or fault of the owner, or of the owner’s employees/agents. This Court disagreed with Oran and stated that the [I]Hound Dog [/I]was not transporting passengers but rather it was a recreational vessel used for sailing instruction purposes.

Accordingly this Court, finding the release effective, granted defendants’ Motion for Summary judgment.

Recreational sailing courses are popular among the Virgin Islands and other tropical destinations. Typically, however, in order to participate in the course, the vessel owner/operators will require “students” to sign a release. However, to find a release invalid, the plaintiff may be able to show his/her consent was obtained through fraud or overreaching. [/B]

[B]Steve Gordon *[/B]