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Looking at the OpenGate Incident: The Duty of a Dive or Submarine Operator to Passengers under Maritime Law

The OpenGate incident in June 2023 involving the loss of a submarine seeking to explore the wreck of the TITANIC raises several questions about the legal responsibilities these operators have to their passengers and the rights of families under these circumstances. Maritime adventures hold a unique allure, offering individuals the opportunity to explore the captivating depths of the ocean and witness its awe-inspiring beauty. For those seeking an underwater adventure, dive operators play a pivotal role in ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience. Under maritime law, dive operators bear a duty of care towards their passengers, prioritizing their safety and well-being. However, the practice of employing pre-voyage release of liability forms has raised concerns about the extent of protection afforded to passengers. This article aims to explore the duty of a dive operator to passengers under maritime law and examine the impact of pre-voyage release of liability.

The Duty of a Dive Operator:

Maritime law imposes a duty of care on dive operators to exercise reasonable care towards their passengers, encompassing various aspects of safety and protection. This duty requires operators to maintain their vessels in a seaworthy condition, employ qualified and experienced staff, provide adequate safety equipment, and adhere to industry best practices and safety standards. Dive operators must also conduct thorough risk assessments and take appropriate measures to mitigate potential hazards.

In addition to maintaining the vessel and equipment, dive operators must ensure that their passengers receive proper instruction and guidance. This includes comprehensive briefings on safety procedures, emergency protocols, and any inherent risks associated with diving activities. It is the responsibility of the operator to assess the passengers' skill levels and physical abilities, providing appropriate supervision and assistance accordingly.

Liability and Pre-Voyage Release Forms:

Pre-voyage release of liability forms, commonly known as waivers, are legal agreements signed by passengers prior to participating in a dive excursion. These documents seek to limit the liability of the dive operator by shifting the responsibility for any injuries or accidents onto the passengers themselves. However, the enforceability of such waivers under maritime law can be subject to scrutiny.

While it is possible for a pre-voyage release form to absolve a dive operator of liability in certain cases, courts often examine the validity and fairness of these agreements. Maritime law places a high value on passenger safety, and waivers cannot be used as a shield for negligent or reckless behavior on the part of the dive operator. Courts will consider factors such as the clarity of the language used in the agreement, the passengers' understanding of the risks involved, and the overall circumstances surrounding the signing of the waiver.

Impact and Limitations:

Although pre-voyage release forms may deter some potential claims against dive operators, their impact on passenger safety and the operator's duty of care cannot be ignored. These waivers can sometimes create a false sense of security for operators, leading to a relaxed attitude towards safety measures and potentially increasing the risk of accidents. Passengers may also be inclined to underestimate the dangers associated with diving activities if they believe they have signed away their rights to compensation.

Moreover, even if a passenger signs a waiver, it does not absolve the dive operator from liability for gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Maritime law recognizes that operators have a fundamental obligation to ensure the safety of their passengers, and waivers cannot excuse behavior that falls below the accepted standard of care.

Consult With an Experienced Maritime Attorney

The duty of a dive operator to passengers under maritime law encompasses a range of responsibilities aimed at safeguarding the well-being of those embarking on underwater adventures. While pre-voyage release of liability forms may be employed by dive operators to mitigate potential legal claims, their impact on passenger safety remains a subject of concern. It is crucial for operators to prioritize safety, maintain the highest standards of care, and recognize that waivers are not a substitute for fulfilling their duty towards passengers. By upholding their responsibilities and adhering to maritime law, dive operators can ensure that every underwater exploration is a safe and unforgettable experience.

If you have any questions about injuries or deaths sustained during a dive operation, contact our experienced maritime lawyers for a free case evaluation.