Is Boat Driver Liable for Water Skiing Injury ?

Ford v. Gouin (1992) involved two men involved in waterskiing, the plaintiff being the skier and the defendant the driver of the boat. The former was skiing both barefoot and backwards in a channel of the Sacramento River Delta, and was severely injured when his head hit a tree limb. He sued the defendant, claiming his injuries resulted from the defendant's steering the boat too close to the wooded shoreline. Before the Supreme Court, he contended that any assumption of risk doctrine "should not apply in the context of a 'cooperative' sport such as waterskiing." (Id. at p. 345.) The court disagreed: "Although most of the prior authorities cited in Knight v. Jewett (1992) did involve sports that are played by competing teams, the rationale of those decisions is, in our view, equally applicable to an active sport such as waterskiing even when it is engaged in on a noncompetitive basis. As noted in Knight, the decisions that have recognized the existence of only a limited duty of care in a sports situation generally have reasoned that vigorous participation in the sport likely would be chilled, and, as a result, the nature of the sport likely would be altered, in the event legal liability were to be imposed on a sports participant for ordinary careless conduct. This reasoning applies to waterskiing. Even when a water-skier is not involved in a 'competitive' event, the skier has undertaken vigorous, athletic activity, and the ski boat driver operates the boat in a manner that is consistent with, and enhances, the excitement and challenge of the active conduct of the sport. Imposition of legal liability on a ski boat driver for ordinary negligence in making too sharp a turn, for example, or in pulling the skier too rapidly or too slowly, likely would have the same kind of undesirable chilling effect on the driver's conduct that the courts in other cases feared would inhibit ordinary conduct in various sports. As a result, holding ski boat drivers liable for their ordinary negligence might well have a generally deleterious effect on the nature of the sport of waterskiing as a whole. Additionally, imposing such liability might well deter friends from voluntarily assisting one another in such potentially risky sports. Accordingly, the general rule limiting the duty of care of a coparticipant in active sports to the avoidance of intentional and reckless misconduct, applies to participants engaged in noncompetitive but active sports activity, such as a ski boat driver towing a water-skier. Under the principles set forth in Knight, summary judgment in favor of defendant was properly entered." (Ford, supra, 3 Cal. 4th at p. 345.)