With a seemingly endless coastline, Florida is a haven for water-based recreational activities. As the Third District Court of Appeal noted at the conclusion of its recent decision in Diodato v. Islamorada Asset Management, Inc., many Floridians and tourists in the state commonly enjoy recreational activities such as jet-skiing, para-sailing, and scuba diving. Although the vast majority of those who engage in these activities do so without incurring any injury, they remain hazardous activities, and participation does come with some degree of risk. In light of the attendant dangers posed by these and other forms of recreation, virtually every business in this field requires customers to sign contracts containing provisions commonly known as exculpatory clauses, which state that the customer assumes the risk associated with the activity. This practice is at the center of the controversy in Diodato, which involved the unfortunate drowning of an Arizonan woman during a deep-water wreck scuba excursion off the Florida Keys.
The aforementioned drowning occurred on April 15, 2010, although this was not the decedent’s first time diving. In fact, she had obtained PADI certification in Arizona and had previously gone on several other dives with the principal defendant in this lawsuit, Key Dives, an Islamorada-based recreational scuba diving company. The fatal dive, however, was an advanced deep-water wreck dive, which was unlike the open water reef dives she had previously done with Key Dives instructors. It is common practice at Key Dives for customers to sign a liability release prior to each dive. However, on this day of this dive, the decedent arrived late to the dock and was not required to sign a waiver. After submerging about 10 feet, the decedent signaled to one of the instructors that she would like to surface. The instructor followed her up but did not help her back on board the boat. While trying to board the boat, the decedent lost hold of the boat’s granny line and drifted away. In response, the captain signaled an alarm, and after a brief search, the decedent was found floating, but she had drowned.
Following the incident, the estate of the decedent brought a wrongful death action against Key Dives and several of its employees and agents. Although the decedent had not signed a liability waiver on the day of that particular dive, the defendants argued that other liability waivers signed by the decedent in connection with other Key Dives diving events covered the incident at hand and shielded the company from liability. Specifically, in August 2009, the decedent signed a liability waiver before a series of six open-water reef dives and initialed a provision on the contract that stated that the release was valid for one year from the date it was signed. In addition, the day before the deep-water dive, the defendant went on an open-water reef dive that was being used as preparation for the upcoming advanced dive and again signed a liability release. This release was identical to the one signed in August of the year before, but the decedent on this occasion did not initial the one-year provision. Although Key Dives intended for the decedent to sign a more thorough release form on the day of the fatal dive that covered particularities of the deep-water excursion, the decedent did not sign this release, since she, as mentioned above, arrived late, and the crew did not wish to delay other diving customers. Following discovery, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and held that the August 2009 and April 2010 releases covered the fatal diving event at issue, and, accordingly, the decedent had released Key Dives and its employees from liability.