White water rafting is a popular sport for outdoor enthusiasts, but like many “adventure sports” comes with inherent dangers. West Virginia’s popular white water rafting course is along the Gauley River – specifically a section referred to as “Pillow Rapids.” This Class V rapid can be dangerous for the inexperienced rafter and the consequences may be dire.
West Virginia has several rivers and locations where outdoor enthusiasts can get their adrenaline pumping, but in a 2008 decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court, the court held that white water rafting accident does not fall under admiralty law. The case of River Riders, Inc. v. Steptoe, 672 S.E.2d 376 (W. Va. 2008), arose from the death of a white water rafter in Jefferson County, West Virginia. The Supreme Court of West Virginia deemed that because those who enjoy white water rafting choose to do so knowing the inherent dangers, it does not make sense to include these rafters as “traveling passengers” on the rivers in West Virginia.
The case initially involved a Washington area business group and other guests who were involved in the white water rafting accident which took the life of one rafter and injured 13 others. The group was under the direction of a guide from River Riders, Inc. who took the rafters onto the Shenandoah River despite a 12 foot swell after a storm. The widow of the deceased passenger, along with those injured, filed claims asserting the River Riders did not measure up to standards set by the West Virginia Whitewater Responsibility Act of 1987.
River Riders argued that Judge Thomas Steptoe, who presided over the case, should not have consolidated the case involving the widow of the deceased passenger and the 13 other injured into a single trial. Further, the River Riders argued that Judge Steptoe should have allowed the signed responsibility releases into evidence, and moreover, the case does not arise under the traditional admiralty law. In holding that there was no admiralty jurisdiction, the West Virginia Supreme Court acknowledged that there be a “location and connection with maritime activity.” Meaning, that the rafters must have had an impact on maritime commerce and other traditional maritime activity (i.e. transportation). The West Virginia Supreme Court reasoned that because the rafters weren’t using the river for transportation, which is a traditional maritime activity, they did not meet the “maritime commerce” requirement and thus, the case did not fall under maritime and admiralty law.