HOMEOWNERS ASSOCIATION NOT LIABLE FOR BOAT WRECK

Because we have represented a number of homeowner’s associations over the years, we noted with interest the recent decision by the Mississippi Court of Appeals rejecting an attempt to hold a homeowner’s association liable for a boating accident. The case itself involves the Lake Caroline Owners Association (“LCOA”) and its 800 acre lake.

The underlying accident occurred on a summer evening after sunset in 2011. Two couples were enjoying themselves on a pontoon boat that was anchored in the middle of the lake. Another boat was apparently speeding across the water when it took a hard turn and crashed into the pontoon boat causing injuries to two of the people on the boat. The two injured people not only sued the operator of the speeding boat, but also the LCOA. The legal theory asserted was that the LCOA failed to maintain a safe lake.

In response to the lawsuit, the LCOA filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that it did not have any reason to anticipate the boating accident, and thus owed no duty to the plaintiffs. In an attempt to defeat summary judgment, the plaintiffs presented an affidavit by a boating safety expert who claimed that the accident was reasonably foreseeable because there had been a previous boating accident in 2005. The plaintiffs also presented nonspecific affidavit testimony that other boats had been seen traveling at a high speed in the past.  Based on these affidavits the plaintiffs claimed that the existence of dangerous boat drivers was a known problem on the lake, and that this problem should have been addressed by better rules and a safety patrol. Ultimately, the motion for summary judgment was granted by Circuit Judge Emfinger.

On appeal, the Mississippi Court of Appeals applied longstanding Mississippi premise liability law to the unique facts of this case. The Court of Appeals stated that for the LCOA to be liable it ether had to have (1) actual or constructive knowledge that the owner of the speeding boat had been previously negligently operating his boat on the lake or (2) actual or constructive knowledge of a general history of negligent boating on the lake. In reviewing the record, the Court of Appeals concluded that one boat wreck in six years was insufficient as a matter of law to show that the LCOA had cause to anticipate the 2011 accident. In upholding the dismissal of the case, the Court reasoned that “imposing liability on LCOA without any notice of an unreasonably dangerous atmosphere on the lake would be to hold LCOA strictly liable . . ..”

The opinion by the Court of Appeals did not discuss the obvious question of whether any specific changes to the existing lake rules or the addition of a safety patrol was feasible or that any specific change in the operation of its lake would have prevented the accident. The inability to come forward with evidence on these proximate cause issues was probably another insurmountable hurdle in the Plaintiffs’ attempt to impose liability on the LCOA.

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