Last Wednesday the Second Appellate District of the Court of Appeal of the State of California held that an unambiguous release of liability applying to the use of rented scuba-diving gear for boat dives or multiple day rentals did not apply to a one-day rental of the scuba-diving equipment for use from shore. As a result, a summary judgment entered by the trial court in favor of the scuba-diving shop was an error; hence, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment. Huverserian v. Catalina Scuba Luv, Inc. (2010) 2010 Cal.App.LEXIS 750.
The sad facts of the case concern a father and son who had rented scuba-dving equipement from Catalina Scuba Luv for a day of diving at the Casino Point underwater dive park in Avalon on Catalina Island. The father ran out of air at 60 feet. He was able to reach the surface by buddy-breathing with his son, but he went into cardiac arrest on shore. He died the next day at UCLA Medical Center.
There was no dispute over how the accident happend; rather, the scuba shop's liability depended on whether the rental release signed by the decedent fully protected the shop from any damages claim. In bold underlined letters, the pertinent language in the release stated: "Equipment rental agreement, liability release and assumption of risk of scuba & snorkel gear for boat dives or multiple day rentals."
Just about any experienced Southern California diver can see the problem with this language, as the usual use of rented scuba gear at the Casino dive park is for diving from shore and for just one day. Thus, a release that applies to boat dives or multiple-day dives would not apply. This was exactly the reasoning of the Court of Appeal.
The law provides that a written release may fully insulate a wrongdoer from damages due to negligence, but the release must be clear, unambiguous, and explicit in expressing the intent of the parties; otherwise, the release is ineffective.
In this case the Court held that the release was clear and unambiguous, as it explicitly stated that it applied to boat dives or multiple day dives, and since Huverserian rented the equipment for just one day use from shore at the dive park, he did not come within either the boat dive or multiuple-day dive categories specified in the release. Hence, the release did not apply to him.
As the Court stated, "a person reading the rental agreement who is neither a boat diver nor multiple day rentor could reasonably conclude that the exculpatory language following the limiting language did not apply to him or her."
Undoubtedly Catalina Scuba Luv, Inc. had hoped and intended for the release to cover all rentals, not just boat dives or multiple day use. As locals know, the bulk of the shop's rentals are used for one day shore dives at the dive park behind the Casino.
The lesson to be learned from the case is to be careful and precise in describing the scope of the release. The languge should be as broad and as all-encompassing as possible, covering all potential uses of the rented equipment. An inartfully drafted release, one that fails to cover the circumstances most often arising from the use of the rented equipment, can fail to protect the releasor.
Now that the Court of Appeal has reversed the judgement in favor of Catalina Scuba Luv, Inc., the case will go back to the trial court for further proceedings, including the possibility of a trial to determine the amount of damages, if any, that the shop may have to pay.