The plaintiff was running his flat boat powered by a 40-hp surface drive on the Tangipahoa river. He decided to explore some shallow water underneath some power lines and ended up crashing into a partially submerged steel I-beam that was owned and operated by the defendant power company. The flat boat struck the I-beam at a high rate of speed (approximately 30-40 miles per hour), ejecting the plaintiff and allegedly causing his injuries.
The crash site was described as having an approximate depth of two feet with exposed grass blades topping the water line. The crash site, when flooded and explorable by a flat boat, was a hundred yards from the mouth of the Tangipahoa River.
The power company moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, the claim had prescribed according to Louisiana Law before the defendant was properly served, and the plaintiff failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted because it alleged it was immune under Louisiana's Recreational Use Immunity Statute.
In its motion, the power company argued that the crash site was not a navigable body of water according to the rules of admiralty, and, so 28 U.S.C. § 1333 did not apply and the claim should be dismissed. The plaintiff opposed the motion arguing that the crash site was a navigable waterway.
The court determined “at the heart of two of the three grounds for dismissal is the classification of the water in which the collision occurred.” After reviewing the arguments raised by the parties, the court determined that the crash site was a navigable waterway subject to admiralty jurisdiction because the court determined the waterway was a “functional tributary of the Tangipahoa River.” Further, the existence of a path down the center of the canal lead the court to believe:
[T]hat the type of incident involved has the potential to disrupt maritime commerce insofar as the path through the vegetation invites fishermen on the Tangipahoa River, like the Plaintiff, to try their chances where there is less vessel traffic. Fishing on a tributary of a major river is a general activity that bears a substantial relationship to a traditional maritime activity of recreational fishing.
For the above reasons, the court determined that it had admiralty jurisdiction over the claim and denied the power company’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The defendant also argued that it was immune pursuant to the Recreational Use Immunity statute La. R.S. § 9:2791. This statute was enacted by Louisiana to induce private owners of large acreages to open expanses of undeveloped lands for public outdoor, open land recreational purposes. For the Immunity Statute to apply, a party must prove:
(1) the property must be an undeveloped, nonresidential rural or semi-rural land area; (2) the injury must be the result of recreational activity pursued in the “true outdoors”; and (3) the injury-causing instrumentality must be the type normally encountered in the “true outdoors,” “not of the type usually found in someone’s backyard. Verdin v. Louisiana Land & Exploration Co., 63-1815 (La. App. 4 Cir. 03/12/97), 693 So.2d 162, 165.
The court addressed this issue by first citing a string of decisions holding that an injury which occurs on a navigable waterway is not subject to recreational use statutes. Additionally, the court found that the Immunity Statute did not apply because the canal in question was developed by the power company and the submerged I-beam was not an instrument that one normally finds in the “true outdoors.”
The power line company also moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of insufficient service of process during the applicable prescriptive period. The court rejected this argument because the power company agreed to waive service.
Based on the above, the power company’s motion to dismiss was denied and the recreational boater’s personal injury claim was allowed to proceed.
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