Admiralty Law: How does it Relate to Recreation Waivers?

029 By Doyice Cotten

Black’s Law Dictionary defines Admiralty law (also called Maritime Law) as “that system of law that particularly relates to marine commerce and navigation, to business transacted at sea or relating to navigation, to ships and shipping, to seamen, to the transportation of persons and property by sea, and to marine affairs generally.”

One might ask “What does admiralty law have to do with sport, recreation, and fitness liability waivers?” It is important to understand that admiralty law applies to activities on any navigable waterway (e.g., lakes, rivers, canals, seashores, bays, oceans), not solely to activities on the high seas. Many sports and recreational activities involve the use of such waterways. Some examples of recreational activities to which admiralty law has been applied include swimming, body surfing, wakeboarding, snorkeling, snuba, scuba diving, jet skis, sailing, charter fishing, pleasure boating,  powerboat riding, and parasailing.

When Does Admiralty Law Apply?

Admiralty law can apply when two tests are met. First is the location test: the incident must have occurred on navigable water or have been caused by a vessel on navigable water. Second is the connection test: the incident must have a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce and the activity must have a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.

What is Admiralty Law Regarding Waivers?

While admiralty law has traditionally disfavored waivers, today liability waivers, disclaimers, and exculpatory clauses are usually deemed to be enforceable so long as they are not overreaching. The rationale for upholding such clauses is that businessmen must be free to bargain over which party is to bear the risk of damage. This enables the businessman to be able to provide a risky activity at a more reasonable price. Owners of recreational vessels and providers of recreational activities, therefore, are free to use written waivers to disclaim liability for recreational activities in navigable waters so long as the waiver is 1) clear, unambiguous, 2) does not violate federal public policy, and 3) is not a contract of adhesion (a waiver for recreational sporting activities is not adhesionary because recreational activities are not essential services)

The liability waiver can protect the provider from liability for injuries resulting from the provider’s ordinary negligence, but there are limitations to liability waivers. They will not (1) provide protection from liability for acts of gross negligence; (2) exempt a party from liability arising from that party’s failure to comply with a safety statute (no private individual has the power to waive such an obligation); (3) be enforced against employees of the provider; and (4) protect when a critical public service is involved.

How Does State Law Fit In?

Federal admiralty law trumps state waiver law. One reason federal admiralty law was developed was to protect the maritime industry through the development of a uniform body of admiralty law that would apply throughout the country. However, when there is no admiralty law governing an issue, the court can apply state law.

Examples of Admiralty Law and Liability Waivers

In Shultz v. Florida Keys Dive Center, Inc. (2000), Shultz sued Florida Keys Dive Center for the wrongful death of his wife, Patricia. She died while scuba diving on a trip conducted by the Florida Keys after having signed a liability waiver intended to release Florida Keys from liability for negligence. The waiver was held to be valid under both admiralty and Florida law.

In Waggoner v. Nags Head Watersports Incorporated (1998), Waggoner was injured when the jetski malfunctioned while he was riding the jetski in navigable waters. Waggoner, like Shultz, argued unsuccessfully that the waiver was invalid because of federal statute 46 U.S.C. § 183(a) (c). The waiver was upheld.

Admiralty law applied in a case in which three adult couples rented a powerboat for a ride on Lake Powell (In re Aramark Sports and Entertainment Services, LLC, 2012). The liability waiver and indemnification agreement were enforced against the signer of the waiver and his estate.

The court applied admiralty law in the case of a wake-boarder who was injured when the boat operator allegedly drove the boat in a dangerous manner while under the effects of drugs and alcohol (Charnis v. Watersport Pro LLC, 2009). The waiver was not enforced, but only because of gross negligence allegations.

In Cook v. Crazy Boat of Key West, Inc. (2007), the pre-injury waiver signed by Cook was deemed valid under admiralty law when she was injured during the boat thrill ride. The waiver would not have been enforceable under Florida law because of the absence of the word “negligence.”


This summary should introduce the reader to a few issues relating to admiralty waiver law. Obviously, it is a complicated issue with many other issues to consider. It is important that operators on navigable waterways understand admiralty law since that law may well be the applicable law in a court case.


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