US zip-line lawsuit

February 7, 2011

contract, Negligence, Uncategorized

A lawsuit was recently filed in United States District Court (District of Utah – Central Division) by the estate of a man who died whilst zip-lining. The complaint alleges that on 11 August 2008 at the Rockin’ R Ranch in Piute County Utah, Daniel A. Hoagland, MD dutifully followed the instructions given him, climbed the zip-line tower, held on to the strap which connected the stick to the zip-line, sat on the stick and left the tower. The strap immediately snapped causing Dr. Hoagland to fall resulting in his death. The complaint describes the strap as narrow, weathered and worn-out.

The lawsuit is seeking general damages, special damages including loss of financial support and lost wages, punitive and exemplary damages, plus other costs.

The lawsuit alleges negligence or, in the alternative, gross negligence which the complaint describes as conduct which is willful, intentional or reckless causing Dr. Hoagland’s death. The complaint lists 15 separate alleged breaches of duty. The two most salient allegations relate to failure to maintain a safe zip-line and failure to secure participants to the zip-line via a harness and lanyard.

The defense will likely rely upon the doctrine of inherent risk and that the plaintiff signed a waiver and release of liability. US courts have dismissed similar claims under the doctrine of primary assumption of risk such that – for example – if falling is an inherent risk of climbing and if the plaintiff fell whilst climbing then the eventuation of that risk is something to which the plaintiff accepted.

That Dr. Hoagland was not wearing a harness – while distressing – is not necessarily material to the case. It is probable that he was informed of this hazard and that, as a man of science, he understood the law of gravity and the risks herein.

Zip line using stick and no harness - photo is NOT from Rockin' R Ranch

Where it becomes potentially troublesome for the defendant is in the state of the equipment. Contrary to the claim, the defendant is under no duty to operate a ‘safe’ zip-line. Under the circumstances, it is unreasonable to assign a duty to make a contraption such as this infallible. Risks can be minimized or mitigated but never eliminated. To remove the risk of falling from a height whilst zip-lining or climbing, the only plausible option would be to not get off the ground. At issue then is what are reasonable risk management practices in the circumstances of operating a commercial zip-line operation.

Recall that the strap broke immediately after Dr. Hoagland weighted it. This might suggest that it was of insufficient integrity or quality to hold his weight. He would have consented to the ordinary risks inherent to zip-lining but have not consented to zip-line on defective or deficient materials or engineering.

It is possible, however, if the waiver was properly prepared and presented that it could bar recovery for a mechanical failure which was not reasonably foreseeable or detectable. Hypothetically, if the strap followed manufacturer’s specifications relating to its use, had not exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended shelf-life, and the alleged materials defect was not detected by the defendants in routine inspection, then its structural failure could not have been reasonably foreseeable.

It is unlikely that a waiver would cover a strap in the condition alleged by the complainant. If it can be shown that the strap was defective or deficient and that it was plain to see to anyone who directed their attention to it then it becomes a different story altogether. This is the second prong to the claim. Gross negligence would not be covered by the waiver.

The crux of this case will therefore be what is a reasonable zip-line and what are reasonable equipment inspection and maintenance practices.

Stay tuned.

Read the statement of claim here – Zip-line Statement of Claim – Hoagland v Rockin’ R Ranch.

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2 Comments on “US zip-line lawsuit”

  1. margaret johnson Says:

    When will something happen about the safety of ziplines and the safety of employees? The training for zipline instructors is poor and safety is often overlooked. My son was working at Flightlines in Boulder City Nevada when he fell 80 feet. He lost both legs, is blind in one eye, crushed his sacrum and pelvis, and suffered a terrible brain injury. Yes, he’s a miracle two years later, however his life will never be the same. The attorneys shared there was little that could be done beyond workmens comp. as there was no third party negligence and it was the type of accident that comes with the job. The feeling was a jury would say: “He knew what he was getting into.” Strange, there have been several other accidents there and they seem to be happening across the country. The last attorney told us that hopefully a class action suit will be filed and he could be a part of it. What are your thought?

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. World Spinner - February 9, 2011

    US zip-line lawsuit…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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